If you’re looking for the boldest wine in Virginia, drink Tannat. This densely purple wine is behind some of the state’s biggest reds, as well as a popular addition in blends looking for extra color and body.
Tannat found a home in Virginia in 1998 at Chrysalis Vineyard. It’s since proven to be a good match for Virginia’s terroir and one of the fastest-growing varieties over the past decade, with acreage going up from 32 acres in 2011 to 77 in 2021.
As international grapes go, it’s fairly rare and usually only found in warm-weather areas. While Tannat is closely associated with Uruguay and the Madiran region of Southwest France, it can also be found in Lodi, Paso Robles, and increasingly in Texas.
This grape’s name is a dead-give-away to its most famous qualities. In the Béarnese dialect spoken in Madiran, Tannat means “tanned,” referring to its deep color. But another explain may be its high tannin level; enough so the term ‘tannin’ became bastardized into ‘Tannat’.
Several factors contribute to its success in Virginia. Its grapes evacuate water well, allowing them to quickly recover from heavy rainfall. Virginia’s weather is beneficial to Tannat as the state’s hot summers naturally brings the grape’s high acidity down to more manageable levels. Its main deficiency is its vines aren’t winter hardy.
But winemakers would probably agree its most distinguishing factor is its high levels of tannin, a trait caused by having 5 seeds instead of the traditional 2 or 3. Tannat is also strong in antioxidants, although few doctors would call it a health drink (personally…I think they should).
To say that I’m a huge Tannat fan is an understatement. I sampled three Tannat flights with each focused on a theme; a ‘younger’ Virginia flight, an older Virginia flight, and a trio of non-Virginia wines.
I’d like to say it was for science, but mostly it was personal curiosity how the ‘home team’ would perform. My Virginia inventory included Chateau O’Brien’s 2012 Tannat Limited Reserve (the only American wine to medal in Uruguay’s 2019 Tannat Al Mundo competition) and Maggie Malick’s 2017 Tannat (Best of Class in the 2021 San Francisco Chronical Wine Competition). I added a few high-profile Tannats from elsewhere as well, including highly regarded bottles from France and Uruguay.
I do admit one mistake in conducting my science experiment. I accidentally put the 2017 Maggie Malick in the flight of older Virginia Tannats, and the 2015 Horton went into what was supposed to be the 2017 vintage-only flight. Hey, mistakes happen when you’re blindly putting bottles into bags!
As always, a caveat – this event was the product of this day with this group of people with these particular bottles. I don’t pretend my one event proves the superiority of any one producer.
- 2016 Batovi Tannat T1 (Uruguay)
- 2015 Chateau Bouscasse Vieilles Vignes (Madiran, France)
- 2016 Broken Earth Vineyard (Paso Robles, California)
- 2017 Maggie Malick Wine Caves
- 2012 Hiddencroft Vineyards
- 2012 Chateau O’Brien Tannat Limited Reserve
- 2017 “Staggerwing” Walsh Family Wine
- 2017 Arterra Wines
- 2015 Horton Vineyards Barrel Select
All wines were uncorked for at least 4.5 hours prior to the event and were made with 90-100% Tannat.
Round 1 / Flight 1
- Bottle #1: 2016 Batovi Tannat T1 (Uruguay)
- Bottle #2: 2015 Chateau Bouscasse Vieilles Vignes (Madiran, France) (Tie)
- Bottle #3: 2016 Broken Earth Vineyard (Paso Robles, California) (Tie)
The first flight was my favorite, which made me feel a bit of a traitor since I love VA Tannats. But trust me – it was a flight of champions.
Uruguay is famous for Tannat and Batovi is one of their most famous producers. The 2016 Broken Earth won Best in Class at the 2020 San Francisco Chronical Wine Competition. While I’m not familiar with French Tannats, I picked up a $50 Chateau Bouscasse Vieilles Vignes which scored 95 points from Wine Enthusiast.
This round ended n a tie between #2 (Bouscasse) and #3 (Broken Earth). Since both were so loved, I eventually gave both a pass to the finalist round.
Bottle #1: 2016 Batovi Tannat T1. Blueberry or chocolate on the nose and notes of stewed fruit. The finish was full of plumb and earthy notes. Several participants noted it was ‘gritty’, which in this context wasn’t a favorable description.
Bottle #2: 2015 Chateau Bouscasse Vieilles Vignes. Tapenade on the nose, grippy tannin. Much was discussed concerning the disconnect between the fruit and tannin; the tannin stayed with you long after the fruit dissipated, leaving you wanting more. But damn, that tannin was still pretty nice and it was smoother than expected.
Bottle #3: 2016 Broken Earth Vineyard. Lots of floral notes were mentioned; fig, jam, red cherry. Liquorish finish. This wine had a fuller body than the others; grippy tannins but not as much as #2.
Perhaps the best description for this wine was it reminded you of a high-alcohol Cabernet (notable as it was from California). “My steak wine” was another descriptor.
Favorites (from most to least)
- Participant #1: 3/2/1
- Participant #2: 3/2/1
- Participant #3: 2/3/1
- Participant #4: 2/3/1
- Participant #5: 3/2/1
- Participant #6: 2/3/1
Round 1 / Flight 2
- Bottle #4: 2017 Maggie Malick Wine Caves
- Bottle #5: 2012 Hiddencroft
- Bottle #6: 2012 Chateau O’Brien (Round Winner)
This round was very different from the previous one. The way the nose positively burst from the glasses made the first-round wines relatively muted by comparison. I mistook this round as the ‘young’ Virginia round, because I figured only young wines would be so expressive.
Bottle #4: 2017 Maggie Malick Wine Caves. Although this wine was only 13% (one of the lower alcohol wines of this event) it had a hot note that I associate with higher-alcohol wines. Red velvet cake or coco powder on the nose. Notes of red fruit, plumb, or candied plumb were mentioned.
Bottle #5: 2012 Hiddencroft. I didn’t find this wine as expressive on the palate as the others did, although others had notes of black cherry or blackberry. Green pepper on the nose and palate, good acidity.
Bottle #6: 2012 Chateau O’Brien. Smooth; stewed fruit and green pepper on the palate, smokey. It had an almost barnyard-y quality on the palate, which in this case was a positive attribute.
“Tobacco tannin” was the note that most people agreed with. Someone mentioned it had an almost candied cherry note to it on the palate, as well as good fruit but remained well balanced.
- Participant #1: 5/6/4
- Participant #2: 6/5/4
- Participant #3: 6/4/4
- Participant #4: 6/4/5
- Participant #5: 6/5/4
- Participant #6: 5/6/4
Round 1 / Flight 3
- Bottle #7: 2017 Walsh Family Wine
- Bottle #8: 2017 Arterra Wines (Round Winner)
- Bottle #9: 2015 Horton Barrel Select
We all noted the wines of this round had lots of barnyard notes on the nose. You could have fooled me into thinking these vintages were older.
Bottle #7: 2017 Walsh Family Wine. Notes were getting difficult at this point. Not fruit driven like the others we tried.
Bottle #8: 2017 Arterra Wines. Tart palate. Blueberry, cherry, even blackberry notes. Someone noted it has some pyrazines and ripe fruit on the nose. Grippy tannin. That said, the fruit was ‘bright’.
Bottle #9: 2015 Horton Barrel Select. This was all about earthy notes. Fig, earthy, dates, even meat. Some funk and both red and black fruit on the palate. Tart, but not as tart as #8.
- Participant #1: 8/9/7: Thought #8 was the most approachable.
- Participant #2: 8/9/7. Another vote for ‘fun’ over ‘cerebral’
- Participant #3: 8/9/7. Thought #8 was ‘fun’ while #9 was ‘serious’
- Participant #4: 8/9/7
- Participant #5: 9/8/7
- Participant #6: 9/8/7. Liked the ‘weird nose’. Continued to insist #9 (Horton) was the best of the day because it was the most fun to drink.
- Wine #2 / 2015 Chateau Bouscasse Vieilles Vignes (France) – Favorite of the day
- Wine #3 / 2016 Broken Earth Vineyard (Paso Robles, California): #3 of the day
- Wine #6 / 2012 Chateau O’Brien – #2 of the day; favorite Virginia
- Wine #8 / 2017 Arterra: #4 of the day
- Participant #1: 2 / 8 / 3 / 6
- Participant #2: 2 / 6 / 3 / 8. Madiran had the nose but not the palate. California had the finish.
- Participant #3: 2 / 3 / 6 / 8
- Participant #4: 2 / 6 / 8 / 3
- Participant #5: 6 / 2 / 8 / 3
- Participant #6: 2 and 3 were tied / 6 / 8 (with a protest vote for #9, Horton).
No tasting notes this time; we sorted the top-4 wines in order of how much we favored them.
Our preferences strongly correlated to the wine’s overall approachability, and I suspect age did a lot to improve that approachability. We did pause for light bites before this round, but for the most part these wines were sampled without a supporting dish that catered to them.
Much to my surprise, France won. I say this because I’d not had good things concerning the quality of French Tannats found in local wine stores, as (allegedly) Madiran’s best tend not to be exported. But the one we had was truly outstanding.
After our winning Wine Enthusiast 95-point wine, if you go by critical acclaim then the best scoring or most award-winning wines typically did the best. Not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but the older the wine was the more we liked it (a 2012 vintage came in runner up, then a 2016 vintage was 3rd, then our 2017 vintage came in 4th).
O’Brien has long been a personal favorite and it was the favorite Virginia wine of the day (#2 overall). This wine’s claim to fame is it was the only American Tannat to medal in a major Tannat event in Uruguay, and I see why. Holding for a full decade took a lot of willpower.
The Broken Earth from California lived up to being a “Best in Show” wine at the 2020 San Fransisco Wine Chronical wine competition, clocking in #3 for the evening.
I wasn’t surprised at all that Arterra made it into the final round. It was also the youngest wine in the final lineup (#4 overall).
It’s tough to make observations of a region based on one wine, so I’ll forgo that for another event. But I did walk away with a greater appreciation of Madiran. If you hear someone say “Madiran doesn’t ship their best wines” they’re wrong. This Chateau Bouscasse was almost universally decreed our favorite of the day.
The biggest surprise was the Maggie wine didn’t show as well as I thought it would. I’d tried it before and it was far smoother at the time, so I can’t give a good explanation as to why it came off so ‘hot’ this time. It demonstrated to me how great wines don’t necessarily show well all the time.
But my most important observation is how the older wines nearly aways showed better than their younger compatriots. Granted 2017 was an outstanding year for Virginia reds and 6 years of age is fairly decent maturity. But even then, a 2017 vintage next to something older made it easy to tell the difference.
The older it was the more drinkable it was. The more drinkable, the higher we tended to score it. Age matters for Tannat.