When I was studying for my WSET Level 3 in Wine & Spirits, Lys Hall introduced me to a Tannat from Madiran, France. I don’t remember the name of the winery, but I do remember I lit up with excitement. Here was a grape variety I knew that to everyone else was a little weird. I had, at this point, been selling the Antigua Bodega Stagnari Prima Donna Tannat via my wine merchant, Novel Wines. The distinct feature of the Madiran Tannat was its age, a 2008 we were drinking in 2016. A feature shared by the 2010 Prima Donna, despite the latter coming from Uruguay. Thick-skinned, long-lived and Malbec-like – and reportedly the healthiest of all wines due to its ramped-up antioxidants – it felt like a real gem to be discovered.
For the next few years, Tannat was an indulgence of mine. I would seek it out at tastings, especially if it was coming from South America where the weather is warmer, brighter, and the resulting wines are more approachable in their youth than the styles from Madiran in south west France. I originally dived deeply into styles coming from Uruguay, where the variety is centre stage thanks to its effortless ability to pair well with red meat: think tannin and fat, salt and acidity, big characters of well-sealed, caramelised beef with a smoky-sweet and melt-in-the-mouth, salt & peppered flavour paired with Tannat’s deeply fruity, leathery and meaty layers.
Tannat’s best feature, in my eyes, is its ability to carry such immense intensity without over extraction. Yes, you have a dark, ripe colour to the wines but its tempered by a savoury hue even in the ripest of vintages – perhaps a feature of its maturity in many examples we enjoy in the UK market. Then you have the alcohol, sometimes at 14.0% abv, but almost-always in modern vintages around 13-13.5% abv, even from the warmest spots in Brazil’s southern Serra Gaucha region. There’s flavour and roundness without spicy heat and over-rich characters you get in some very ripe, less well-made Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon.
It may not always be the most complex of wines, but it is attractive ultimately in its confidence of what it is. Tannat is a reliable choice for full-bodied, balanced, darkly-intense red wines that have a real affinity with red meats or extra mature, crumbly Cheddar cheese. This Christmas, it was the grape that saved my over-cooked roast beef. It was the knight in shining armour to a difficult year (something I needn’t exaggerate). I had originally plumbed for Finca Biniagual Gran Veran 2015, a gorgeous full-bodied and silky-smooth red wine made from Manto Negra and Syrah, made in Mallorca. I had three bottles a friend brought back from a trip there and luckily the two I’d enjoyed previously had been stunning, but on Christmas Day in 2020 my last Gran Veran was corked – probably a fault of my own storage than anything to land on the winery. Browsing my wine rack for a replacement, there was the old reliable: a bottle of 2015 Pizzato Fausto Tannat from Brazil.
Bold, plummy, leathery and meaty with tannins that have just about softened to the point you could describe the Fausto ’15 as “easy-drinking”. Touches of tobacco smoke, berries and cloves on the finish leave an almost peaty, Christmassy legacy. Paired with roast beef and all the trimmings, I almost forgot the extra few minutes I’d left the beef in the oven and finished Christmas dinner thoroughly satisfied.
And so ends my love letter to Tannat; written in a moment and with the sole, and hopeful, intention that it will inspire you to pick a Tannat from the next shelf or wine list it pops up in.