Zooming in on Tannat
Nowhere is this beguiling variety more at home than in south west France, where it produces wines that aren’t simply tannic and alcoholic, but full of fruit, freshness and balance
One of France’s most adventurous and quality-focused co-operatives, Plaimont is a familiar feature on the UK’s independent scene.
Founded in the late 1970s, the organisation now works with over 800 growers who between them cover more than 5,000ha of vineyard in the Saint Mont, Madiran, Pacherenc de Vic-Bilh and Côtes de Gascogne appellations, and it has been hugely influential in shaping the modern-day vinous reputation of the entire Gascony region.
There’s a long history of wine production going back at least as far as Roman times in this bucolic corner of south west France – although wild vines (vitis silvestris) flourished here in the foothills of the Pyrenees long before, and the region is now known to be the birthplace of a number of grape varieties, including Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Today, perhaps the outstanding red varietal performer for both Plaimont and the region is another local: Tannat.
As Plaimont MD and winemaker Olivier Bourdet-Pees says, the reputation of Tannat has no doubt been boosted by its presence in some heavyweight red wines produced in contemporary Uruguay and Argentina.
But there is something truly special about the Tannat that’s produced in its original home.
“It’s the main grape here in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It’s powerful, but in our region we can make different kinds of wines,” Bourdet-Pees says.
“If you want roundness and easy drinking, maybe this isn’t the place. But what you do get here – the signature of Tannat in the foothills – is freshness and tension. It’s one of the best regions in France for keeping this balance close.”
Those characteristics came through beautifully in a fascinating tasting of eight Tannat wines exploring the various terroirs of Madiran and Saint Mont, which was hosted (via Zoom) by Bourdet-Pees and his colleague Céline Dabadie, and attended by some of the UK’s leading independent merchants and wholesalers.
The event kicked off with the second vintage of a typically market-attuned Plaimont project, Chez Louisat Madiran 2018 – a wine that shows how Tannat’s attributes are ideally suited to making wines in a natural way, with as few additions as possible.
“Something Tannat can do easily is make wines really close to the grape with nothing added,” Bourdet-Pees says. “Because of the tannins, we can avoid sulphur. A lot of wines made without SO2 are dangerous in their evolution, but, thanks to the tannin, that isn’t true here.”
Fermented and aged in stainless steel at 10°C, Chez Louisat is a fresh, fruit-forward style of Tannat that, as Bourdet-Pees says, has an attractively “wild” quality.
A deliciously “open expression of fruit” is also the hallmark of the second Madiran on show: Maestria 2018.
The bestselling Madiran in the French on-trade, it’s sourced from the earliest-producing Tannat (plus a smaller proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon) vines in the Gers, with 20% of the blend matured for 12 months in two-year-old barrels.
As with all the wines in the tasting, the Maestria shows how it’s possible to make Tannat in a highly drinkable style where the element for which the variety is most famous – strong tannin – is harmoniously integrated.
For the Maestria cuvée that means playing with a small amount of micro-oxygentation.
But for Plaimont the key to an appealing tannic texture lies in the vineyard as much as the winery. Among other things, that means being careful with yields. According to Bourdet-Pees, Tannat is a naturally productive grape that can easily reach yields in excess of 100hl/ha in Madiran and Saint Mont (and as much as 400hl/ha in Uruguay). Green harvesting is therefore essential, to have yields of no more than 50 to 60hl/ha (and much lower for highest-quality cuvees) – a technique which is also important in keeping potential alcohol in check.
The terroir of Tannat
Another Tannat talent on display at the tasting was the variety’s ability to express terroir – and showcasing that ability is the raison d’être of Vignobles Marie Maria, a new range of Tannats sourced from vineyards grown on three of Madiran’s main soil types.
As Bourdet-Pees says, the range is very much a collaboration that involves “a lot of work between Plaimont and the specific growers”. The range takes in Grèvière, from a terroir of gravelly-clay found in the warm south of Madiran; Veine, from a terroir of large pebbles unique to Madiran’s highest altitudes, and which, says Bourdet-Pees, is “traditionally considered the top terroir” of the appellation; and Argilo, from the clay-limestone vineyards found on the appellation’s steepest slopes.
The differences in character are immediately apparent, from the supple black fruit and liquorice of the Grèvière, through the powerfully structured Veine with what Bourdet-Pees calls its “huge skeleton”, to the density, power and polished tannins of Argilo.
“I think Tannat transmits terroir very well,” says James Davis MW of Adnams. Oxford Wine’s Emily Silva agrees: “You can definitely feel clear differences between all the three wines.”
Terroir expression was palpable, too, in the final trio of the tasting, three vintages of a single great Saint Mont estate. “Château de Sabazan is the terroir of Bas-Armagnac: a fawny sandy soil, a very famous and wonderful terroir that makes rounder softer wines,” Olivier says.
As well as demonstrating the softer, more red-fruited style of Tannat produced in Saint Mont’s terroir, the de Sabazan trio also highlight the variety’s remarkable longevity.
From the youthful vigour of the 2018, through the mellow “undergrowth” scents of 2008, to the sensuous, rounded 1998, the Château de Sabazan wines delighted the tasters – and provided yet more delicious proof that Tannat grown in the foothills of the Pyrenees is one of France’s greatest combinations of variety and terroir.
Steve Crosland, Tanners
James Davis, Adnams
Nick Hillman, Wineservice
Mark Hull, Wine Net
Michael McGarry, Sovereign Wines
Andrew Sidebottom, Merchant Vintners
Emily Silva, Oxford Wine Company
Simon Wallace, Gusto Wines
Feature sponsored by Plaimont
Plaimont works with a number of regional wholesalers and is offering these wines to the UK trade for the first time.
For more information, visit www.plaimont.com