Tannat — the red grape used from southwestern France that is the de facto national grape of Uruguay — has been grown in California for decades. Much of it was cultivated in the Central Valley and used in jug wines, where it contributes color and tannin.
More recently, though, tannat has found a good home in Paso Robles.
A key player was Tablas Creek Vineyard.
When Tablas Creek imported cuttings from France for its vineyard, a man at the plant nursery included “two varieties that we didn’t ask for,” says Tablas Creek general manager Jason Haas. Those varieties turned out to be tannat and vermentino. The nursery man had a business interest in Uruguay and knew tannat. He told the Tablas team that he thought it would be a good fit for Paso Robles. Half an acre was planted with the idea that the grapes would go into one of the winery’s blends.
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But Haas says tannat “just didn’t meld very well with the Rhône varieties.” In 2002, Tablas Creek bottled the tannat separately, and the winery has been producing the wine ever since.
The vineyard now has 3.5 acres of tannat. (The winery had to petition the government to add “tannat” to the list of grape varieties that can appear on a wine label; the proposal was approved in late 2002.)
The grape does indeed appear to thrive in Paso Robles. “It’s probably the easiest red grape that we grow,” Haas says. The shoots emerge late enough to avoid spring frosts, he says, and tannat naturally controls its yields and ripens around late September or early October. “It’s really kind of a joy to deal with in the vineyard,” he says.
Tablas Creek sold cuttings to other wineries, including some in Paso Robles. San Luis Obispo County now has about 40 acres of tannat. Some wineries bottle varietally labeled tannat; others use the grape in blends. Styles range from elegant and savory to ripe and voluptuous.
Among the wines I’ve sampled, I’ve particularly enjoyed the 2010 Tablas Creek ($40), which is dark, dense and floral, with black fruit, some savory notes and fine tannins; the 2010 Sextant ($35), a lively, spicy wine with a note of lavender; and the well-priced, well-balanced 2010 Minassian-Young ($25). The 2010 Tobin James Palindrome Tannat ($32) offers sweet fruit, some spicy notes and approachable tannins, while the 2009 Kenneth Volk Bella Collina Vineyards Tannat ($36) is bright and slightly minty.
Lone Madrone — the label co-owned by Tablas Creek’s longtime winemaker, Neil Collins — has, like Tablas, been making tannat since 2002, albeit in a much riper style. The 2009 Lone Madrone Tannat ($40) is dark and dense, with sweet black fruit, a note of pencil lead and drying tannins. Tannat also figures prominently in two Lone Madrone blends.
Tannat plays a lesser role in the lively 2011 Chronic Cellars Dead Nuts ($26), with its berry fruit and hints of chocolate and spice, and the riper-tasting 2011 Daou Vineyards Unbound ($46), a dark, dense wine with spicy black fruit.
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Tablas Creek 2010 En Gobelet ($45)
Tannat is a small component (10 percent) in this blend of mostly grenache and mourvedre, named for the way the vines are trained. The spicy, peppery wine is full of smoky berry fruit and finishes with firm tannins.