In late July we conducted our second Tannat Night, hosted by Mark and Maggie Malick. It was a different crowd from last year but nevertheless included around a dozen experienced wine professionals to ‘talk Tannat’, including winemakers or other representatives from Barrel Oak Winery, Bluemont Vineyard, Delaplane Cellars, Fabbioli Cellars, Effingham Manor, and our host Maggie Malick Wine Caves.
This time we had a wider assortment of Virginia wine, especially in terms of vintage year. The outstanding 2017 vintage was especially well represented. We had several 2017s at our last event but often felt they were on the younger side. 17 months made a difference in smoothing these tannins out.
For those unfamiliar with the variety, Tannat is a high tannin & acid grape originally from the Madiran region of France. While Madiran is its spiritual home Tannat is now better known as the national grape of Uruguay. Small plantings also exist in California, Argentina and Australia.
But Tannat is a good fit for Virginia’s terroir as our hotter summers makes us suitable for high acid wines, as the heat reduces their acidity to more manageable levels. While it currently constitutes just over 2% of Virginia’s vinifera plantings, over the past decade local growers have doubled their acreage from around 20 acres in 2009 to almost 50 in 2019. Its main drawback is its vines are susceptible to cold damage, an occasional problem given Virginia’s variable winters.
Tannat can definitely fill the ‘big red’ category for Virginia that Cabernet Sauvignon holds for California. It’s inky and big and will blow you away. Mark Malick calls it a ‘go big or go home’ wine. A number of Virginia wineries use it as a blending grape to give their reds color and structure. Many of these – especially in Charlottesville and Northern Virginia – also produce single-varietal bottles.
In deciding the lineup I did my best to compare a Virginia wine vs. another example in every round, although we eventually ran out of non-Virginia wines for 1-1 comparisons. I also started us off with several of our best wines, on the assumption that over time tasting would become…more difficult.
Having a loud, opinionated crowd made it a fun night – although sometimes we seemed to forget to talk about the wine right in front of us. To top it all off Mark made us cassoulet, which we enjoyed after the 4th round. All tasting descriptors listed here are what was I was able to glean from different participants, as well as my own notes.
2017 Maggie Malick (Virginia): This wine won the 2021 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (SFCWC) for best Tannat in class, beating three other double gold winners. “Rich” was our immediate byword. Its American oak was noticeable on the nose. This wine had lots of structure, with obvious cherry and raspberry notes and a lingering finish. We felt this was one of the best of the night (more than a few would say it was the best).
2017 Kerrville Hills (Texas): This also won double gold at the 2021 SFCWC, and was graciously gifted to us by Kerrville for this tasting event. The crowd immediately detected a lighter nose than what we were expecting. Participants voiced different perceptions of its tannin level, ranging from lighter to heavier tannin structure. It was fruit forward, although not as much as some of our following wines. We noted an interesting contrast in that it was darker in color but had a lighter mouthfeel. “Sharp” tannin structure. Everyone really enjoyed this bottle.
2018 Effingham (Virginia): The night’s third double gold winner at the 2021 SFCWC competition (right below the Kerrville wine). These three double golds couldn’t be more different. The Effingham was a softer, less intense Tannat, representative of Virginia’s rainy 2018 season. 14 months in Virginia oak. Some detected a “warm-sweet” note to it. All around we enjoyed it.
2017 Pizzorno (Uruguay): Our first Uruguay Tannat of the evening. “Funky” was the key adjective. This wine had some weight to it. Some participants detected a little brett (aka Brettanomyces yeast) but not the ‘bad’ kind of brett that winemakers guard against. All around, I think people didn’t love but it but we still generally liked it.
2014 Maggie Malick (Virginia): Our 2nd best in class/double gold of the evening, this time from the 2017 San Francisco International Wine Competition. This wine spent 2-3 years in barrel. Coco on the finish. Subtle oak, grippier tannins. Another hit from Maggie.
2010 Barrel Oak (Virginia): One of our oldest vintages of the evening. This was a lower acid, higher alcohol wine that ‘tastes great…for an 11 year old wine’. Considering its vintage it still aged well; the fruit may have been on the decline but we felt it had some fruit notes left. Doug Fabbioli commented this wine disproves comments from those critics who claimed the 2010 vintage wouldn’t stand the test of time.
2017 Effingham (Virginia): This wine left everyone impressed, and was a group favorite alongside the 2017 Maggie Tannat. Notes of coco, bramble fruit, raspberry and leather. Well balanced and spicy.
2016 Domaine Du Moulie (Madiran, France). This was a very different wine than what we’ve had so far. No wood characteristics, lots of fruit. Tasting notes included mint & eucalyptuses on the palate, perhaps some spice. But overall, the tannins were muted – a trait we felt was due to Madiran’s growing conditions.
2016 Jake Busching (Virginia): Good acid and fruit. Nicely balanced & good finish. Some described ‘sweet fruit’ notes up front. The oak was well integrated. It was a little vegetal but this is one of the few times I don’t think of that descriptor as a negative.
2013 Michael David “Inkblot” (Lodi, California): At 14.8% alcohol it was ‘hot’. Coco characteristics, dusty tannin. Overly ripe fruit. Our only California wine of the evening. We were surprised we didn’t like it more…maybe we all have too much of a Virginia palate?
2017 Delaplane Cellars (Virginia): Gold medal in the Virginia Governor’s Cup. Made in new Hungarian oak. It was lingering and accessible. It was well received although I didn’t get a clear profile of the wine.
2020 Pizzorno (Uruguay): One of the more divisive wines of the night, as it was made using carbonic maceration. Bright fruit notes. Maggie noted it was meant to be served chilled, so what was in our glass may not have been its best representation. While few of us enjoyed it, we acknowledged that it shouldn’t be judged in the same way as our other wines as it was a different way of making Tannat.
2009 Fabbioli Cellars (Virginia): Oldest vintage and richest nose of any bottle that evening. Fruit was on the decline but we could tell it was a good wine, the “Sofia Loren of wines” for that evening if you will. Herb and sweet liquorish on the nose.
2016 Garzon (Uruguay): Put it this way – it was good for $20. It was obviously not an ‘artisanal’ wine, but instead mass produced to satisfy a large audience. Doug had some funny analogies to describe his opinion of a mass produced yet satisfying wine.
2017 Hiddencroft (Virginia): We felt this wine was fruit forward, with more prominent wood (at least compared to the others). It also seemed a younger wine, as the tannins seems ‘green’.
2017 Bluemont (Virginia): Made in neutral barrels. Maybe mild lavender on the nose. On the palate, comments varied from tobacco and chocolate nibs. Well balanced but young.
2017 Walsh Family Wine (Virginia): Tasting notes were difficult by this point, which may not be fair to Walsh since I’ve had it before and always enjoyed it. Some detected heavier oak. It had intensity but not as much fruit as the others. “Dark” and “big’ were the key adjectives.
2019 Briedé Family Vineyards (Virginia): Sweet, bright, young. Those are the only tasting notes you get after you’ve tried 18 Tannats in an evening.
In summary – the two favorites were the 2017 Maggie and the 2017 Effingham, which shouldn’t be a surprise given what a strong year that was. After those two it seemed we enjoyed a broad grouping, including (in no particular order), the 2016 Texas Kerrville, 2014 Maggie, 2016 Jake Busching, 2017 Delaplane, and 2017 Bluemont.
What did I learn?
Most importantly, I think we demonstrated that Tannats from different states and countries had distinct stylistic differences. I’d go even further in saying the examples from Virginia were most diverse of the lineup, which shouldn’t be surprising given the different growing conditions in the state.
Some Virginia Tannats were more tannin & earth-driven, while others were richer & fruitier. By contrast, the examples from Uruguay and France were uniformly fruit forward. The major outlier was Texas, which was closer in style to Virginia than either Uruguay or France.
Sadly we only had one example (but an excellent one) from the Lone Star State. I believe Texas Tannats are worthy of more sampling…for the sake of science of course. I fully acknowledge given how many of us have a “Virginia palate” we may be biased in choosing our favorites. That said, I do think the Virginia Tannats we enjoyed that evening were more complex and balanced than the Uruguay and French examples. As Virginia summers become even warmer, perhaps we’ll see even more of Tannat in the upcoming years.