One of the joys of being a wine blogger is you get to fool people into thinking you’re smarter about wine than you really are. Such was the case with my invite by Mark and Maggie Malick (of Maggie Malick Wine Caves) to join them in a tasting of Tannat wines from around the world.
The Malicks have a special love for the Tannat grape. High in acid and tannin, I usually see it paired with rich foods like beef or aged cheese. While otherwise known as the national grape of Uruguay, Tannat does well in Virginia as well, as our gradual summers facilitate the kind of slow ripening that Tannat needs to grow well.
Mark invited a bunch of Tannat winemakers from around Virginia to bring their wines for a comparison; non-winemakers like myself brought bottles from California, Oregon, even Israel. Toping that off were a half-dozen Tannats from Uruguay; the spoils of the Malick’s most recent ‘research’ visit. All told, we had over a dozen people gathered around their dinner table eating cassoulet & cheese and – most importantly – sampling about 20 bottles of Tannat.
While obviously it’s impossible not to have a great time while drinking a lot of wine, the winemakers used this as an opportunity for some cross-talk regarding how they made their wines, what audiences they sell it to, and speculation on Tannat’s place in the portfolio of Virginia wines. Tannat is unlikely to become a top seller in Virginia, but it does serve as an effective replacement to bold California-style reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
In addition to the Malicks and some friends, in attendance were Mark Beckel of Chateau O’Brien, Doug Fabbioli of Fabbioli Cellars, Michael Heny of Michael Shaps Wineworks, Chris Pearmund of Pearmund Cellars, and Scott Spelbring of Bluemont. If anybody could ‘talk Tannat’, it was this crew.
What did I learn? Well, I’d say two main things:
First, Tannats have distinct regional differences. Very often the nose of the Uruguayan Tannats had a mustiness that was a dead give-away, and they trended towards being on the fruitier side. The California & Oregon Tannats were both softer and less tannic than anything else on the table. The short finish of the Israeli Tannat made it something of an outlier. The Virginia selections were the most diverse, with some trending towards tannic and weighty but others more fruit-forward. “Rounder” might be the best single adjective to describe Virginia’s Tannat lineup.
Second, cellar time really does matter. That’s true about wine in general, but I think it’s doubly so with the Tannat grape. Tannin need time to smooth out, and you could easily tell the difference between wines that were 8 years old vs ones that were 3-4 years old. Unfortunately Virginia’s Tannats were almost uniformly young. The good news is if they were good now, they will only get better over time.
- 2017 Effingham (Virginia). Smooth but young, with notes of caramel. The super ripe 2017 fruit and the luxurious Virginia Oak (Culpeper!) will only further knit together over time.
- 2011 Amat (Uruguay): This was one of the hits of the day, and ended up being Mark’s favorite. Chris started off with noting how it had some weight to it but was still well balanced. The tannins on this one were smooth.
- 2016 Garzon (Uruguay): “Ripe” was the key word here. There seemed an underlying mustiness to it with a hint of oak; maybe the wine was made in older barrels?
- 2016 Michael Shaps (Virginia): The charred oak was noticeable, and we could tell it was a younger wine. Grippy tannins. But overall very enjoyable, and we agreed it will only get better with age.
- 2016 Tabor (Israel): This was one of the more unusual wines of the evening. It came from a vineyard on the Golan Heights, a distinction that caused some to joke they tasted notes of ‘gun smoke and shrapnel’. Doug said it tasted ‘funky’ but in a good way. The musty nose and short finish were noticeable. One taster noted it has “unresolved” tannin (aka firm, tight tannin structure associated with younger wines).
- 2015 Fabbioli (Virginia). One of higher-acid wines of the night, which along with the delicate fruit character and restrained use of oak made it a welcome contrast to the riper, more heavily extracted examples of the evening. Notably this wine won the 2019 Loudoun County Wine Award’s “Best Tannat”.
- 2017 Joy (Lodi, California): A “smaller” wine. We didn’t see any notable flaws to it but neither did it have a lot of oomph, especially in comparison to several bottles we had already enjoyed.
- 2017 Arterra (Virginia): Black fruit on the nose, but had noticeable acidity and a nice finish. It was one of the more interesting wines of the night, likely a result of having been fermented using native yeast (winemaker Jason Murray’s signature style). The only downside is it tasted young.
- 2016 Troon Vineyard (Oregon): I looked this one up and discovered it was also made using native yeast, but the Troon couldn’t be more different from the Arterra. Not a lot going on in the nose. Very soft, made in a lighter style. We suspect this was a Tannat made for Pinot drinkers, and was the least Tannat-like wine of the entire lineup.
- 2017 Maggie Malick (Virginia): Blended with 5% Petit Verdot & 5% Merlot. Coconut notes from the American oak popped out. Christmas spices on the palate. We liked it but like many of the 2017s on the menu, we felt it was young; the notes needed time to integrate.
- 2016 Batovi (Uruguay): Weak nose, except for some musty notes. Not a lot of weight on the palate; more fruit driven than many of the others we were trying. I looked it up and later saw Wine Enthusiast gave it 93 points, which was a higher rating than I suspect people at the table were giving it. Maybe it’s a stylistic preference that Virginia’s Tannat winemakers are more focus on weight and tannin than Uruguay’s Tannat winemakers are?
- 2017 Upper Shirley (Virginia) The second entry of a Michael Shaps wine. Good length and roundness on the palate. Not as heavy as we were expecting.
- Spinoglio (Uruguay): This one also required some research; I believe it’s a Tannat blend and/or non-vintage wine. It did seem more aged than other offerings, and was easier drinking. Despite its background Doug said it had a ‘monolithic’ taste to it, as if the winemakers tried too hard for consistency over complexity.
- 2012 Chateau O’Brien (Virginia): Strong, refined and weighty. The acidity dried my mouth up quickly. Although it was 15% alcohol it didn’t taste remotely like it. One of the hits of the night, alongside the Amat.
- 2014 Horton (Virginia): Tiny bit of musk on the nose. Leather and dark fruit notes. Tannic, medium-to-long finish.
- 2017 Bluemont (Virginia) This wine was made with fruit from the Maggie Malick vineyard. Candy finish. Brambleberry notes. Someone noted this wine was a good representation of what a Virginia Tannat should taste like.
- 2017 Pippin Hill (Tannat blend, Virginia): Young, easier drinking and less tannic than most others.
- 2017 Maggie Malick Tannat-Viognier (90% Tannat/10% Viognier, Virginia): Easy drinking, aromatic. This is the kind of wine that doesn’t need a food pairing to enjoy it. It’s also Maggie’s best-selling wine and the only winery in Virginia that sells this blend.
- Bone Orchard (port-style): Crushed blackberry notes. It was also…getting more difficult to taste anything at this point, given were now on our 19th and 20th wines of the night.
- 2011 Vivent de Tannat (Uruguay): Classic port-style. Weight-driven not tannin driven. Christmas spice notes and noticeably high alcohol.
Was there a favorite? Based on what could tell, the consensus was the 2012 Chateau O’Brien and the 2011 Amat were the top two. I thought the O’Brien was the smoothest of the evening, while the Amat was the most complex. Which is better depends on what style you preferred.
PS; I actually learned a third lesson of the night. When doing wine tastings, ALWAYS write your notes down immediately! Because the next morning might be…fuzzy…