IT’S A RED grape variety rarely found in America and often difficult to track down in wine shops. It’s not the next big thing, but tannat could be coming to a glass near you.
Tannat (pronounced “tuh-NOT”) originates in southwestern France, a relatively obscure region called Madiran in the foothills of the Pyrenees. And while it has been grown there for the past 400 years or so, it’s becoming more famous in the South American country of Uruguay, where Basques transplanted it around 1870.
Not long after that, tannat arrived in California, where it remains relatively obscure. Perhaps 250 acres are planted there, and its production accounts for less than 0.1 percent of the total California wine-grape harvest.
Tannat is a big wine, a tannic monster that is bigger than cabernet sauvignon and perhaps even the massive petite sirah. A well-balanced tannat could easily age for decades, I suspect.
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With more than 100 wine-grape varieties being grown in the Pacific Northwest, why would we want yet another one? Because it could well be perfect for our region, particularly in the arid climate of Eastern Washington’s Columbia Valley.
Tannat is easy to grow: It handles frosts and cold temperatures well, is not susceptible to disease and ripens in the middle of harvest.
What’s not to love?
That’s what Bart Fawbush thinks, too. Last fall, the owner of Bartholomew Winery in Seattle brought in his first tannat grapes, grown at Konnowac Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills region of the Yakima Valley.
Fawbush, whose winery is in the old Rainier Brewery building in Georgetown, likes experimenting with unusual varieties such as carménère, primitivo, tempranillo, souzao and aligoté. So tannat is ideal for him. Fawbush plans to make about 100 cases of tannat, which likely will be released in summer 2016.
Across the mountains in Richland, Rob Griffin at Barnard Griffin has been making Washington wine since 1977. He’s known for working with a lot of grapes — he harvested no fewer than 25 varieties last fall. In 2013, he brought in his first tannat from a vineyard on the Oregon side of the Columbia Valley near the town of Arlington. While that first harvest was interesting, he said his 2014 edition could be downright superb. When he releases it in another 15 to 18 months, it likely will go first to his wine club members — who are used to fun and unusual wines.
If you want to try tannat, you won’t have to spend much for examples from Uruguay or Madiran. Because of the rarity of the grape, prices for domestic examples (such as the Tablas Creek version I’m reviewing here) are likely to be higher.
Andy Perdue is a wine author, journalist and international judge. Learn more about wine at greatnorthwestwine.com. Mark Harrison is a Seattle Times staff photographer.