Tannat is a wine geek’s grape, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Like cult films or cult bands, tannat is often dug for its brooding obscurity or transgressive potency more than for any sense of down-home approachableness.
Nonetheless, like Eraserhead or Lydia Lunch, tannat has a savagely loyal fan base. These include Jason Haas of Tablas Creek, who began to grow tannat in Paso Robles before the BATF even recognized it as a varietal; it includes the whole country of Uruguay, where it is considered the ‘signature grape’ (often under the name harriague); and there’s Bending Branch Winery, near Comfort, Texas, where they produce several wines outside of most people’s comfort zones, including picpoul, souzão, vermentino… and tannat.
And of course, there is Madiran.
In the shadow of the Pyrenees Mountains, fifty miles from the sea in the Southwestern France appellation of Madiran lies the European epicenter for tannat, a grape so hermetic, dense and implacable that it is often ‘softened’ with cabernet sauvignon. Soils here are pebble, clay and limestone, and combined with the aggressive summer climate and ocean breezes—and especially, long, dry, sunny autumn ripening hang-times tempered with Pyrenees-rainshadow Foehn winds—make it an ideal climate for hefty red wines.
Which is, in fact, all that Madiran produces.
As a wine—as the name suggests—these reds, all made with some tannat and some made with all tannat, can be hugely puckery and nearly undrinkably astringent when they are young. Bacchus or Dionysus or the man who changed water to wine or whoever is in charge of this stuff blessed tannat with a double-whammy of bitter polyphenolic compounds: Extra skin and extra seeds. Most wine grapes have two or three seeds; tannat has five. Unusually thick-skinned as well, wines from tannat have traditionally required long cellar aging to tame the most tenacious of these aggressors which in young wines can shock the palate with a sensation akin to sucking down puréed boat oar.
In 1990, following a technology innovation by Madiran vigneron Patrick Ducournau, certain winemakers realized that by the judicious, mechanical addition of tiny bubbles of oxygen during élevage—a wine’s pre-bottling ‘adolescence’ during which much of its character is formed—the harsh tannins are level-set much earlier than they would be sitting in a cellar. Called ‘micro-ox’ in the industry, it is common practice throughout much of the wine world—Southern France especially—but it is not widely discussed, possibly because any artificial manipulation of a wine is viewed as marketing kryptonite.
Other wine producers like the iconic Alain Brumont of Château Montus don’t mention it because they don’t ‘resort to it’, at least according to Robert Parker. Brumont—whose own remarkable story, rising from a field worker on his father’s estate to dominate the Madiran wine scene—is fodder for another column. Today’s is how pure Madiran tannat, as ferocious and untamable as Brumont himself, handles itself over a decade or more of micro-ox-free aging.
I met with Vincent Thebaud, Vignobles Brumont’s export manager, and he walked me through a vertical of Château Montus ‘La Tyre’—the estate’s 25-acre vineyard planted on one of the appellation’s twenty-two hillsides. Says Brumont, “The best terroir for making high-quality tannat wines is high up the slopes.”
La Tyre, which Brumont purchased in 1988, produced its first single-vineyard wine in 2000, and so convinced was Brumont of the power and quality of this un-micro-oxed 100% tannat that a few years later he gathered a bunch of pros at Montus for a blind tasting, putting La Tyre 2002 in the ring with same-vintage champions from Château Cheval Blanc, Penfolds Grange, Ridge Monte Bello, Petrus and Mouton Rothschild.
So remarkable (and true) is that often-reported statement that I—being a cynical sonuvabitch—figured there had to be a disclaimer involved. And there is. Performed by 60 independent ‘wine enthusiasts’ and supervised by ‘a famous wine critic’, the Rendezvous des Icônes is held yearly at Brumont, and the 2007 competition (the only one that Madarinophiles seem to mention) is also the only one where La Tyre won.
But, you see, Madiran is frequently a ‘disclaimer’ wine—‘it needs a food accompaniment’, ‘it needs cellar time’; ‘you to ‘understand’ the grape to appreciate the wine’. For the most part, to me, this is like saying The Grateful Dead is a good band as long as you smoke a lot of dope. And, the fact is, just because you have to understand a wine to like it does not mean that you will like it once you understand it. For the most part, I prefer my wine clause-free.
In any case, the prize-winning 2002 was not among the vertical array presented by Vincent, nor was the original eye-opening vintage 2000. Nor 2005; in fact, the vintages offered were, with the exception of 2009 (far too young to drink) less-than-stellar, and so my assessment of how disclaimer-laden Madiran tannins metamorphose comes with a disclaimer of its own.
I have included Vincent Thebaud’s comments with my own along with a couple other disclaimers, since we’re on a roll:
* Does Vincent know more about Madiran, tannat and Alain Brumont than I do? Yes.
* Do I work for Alain Brumont? No.
Château Montus ‘La Tyre’, 2001:
Thebaud: Generous year with an explosion of fruits, very good concentration and great balance. Massive, ripe, with cassis, dark plum, dark cherry and meat flavors, this has big tannins as well, but they’re not out of bounds. Cardamom and exotic spice notes linger on the finish.
Kassel: Blackberry, sharp acids and a heavy dose of popsicle stick beneath the berries—you can actually trace the tannins creeping underneath your upper lip. Only the winemaker can judge what this wine will do in another five years, or maybe even he can’t say for sure, but I sense that the fruit here is heading to the exit faster than the chewiness.
Château Montus ‘La Tyre’, 2003:
Thebaud: A heat wave in Europe produced a very ripe harvest and thanks to the natural acidity of the tannat grape, the wines are perfectly balanced. Savory, evolved flavors of dried tobacco leaf, leather and spice; the wine has aged gracefully but is still full of life.
Kassel: A far more integrated wood and fruit equilibrium; the tannins are big, but settled in among a juicy, rustic collection of wild berry flavors, making them accessible. Nice, clean tobacco notes fills the mid-palate and softer, but still dominate wood at the end.
Château Montus ‘La Tyre’, 2006:
Thebaud: Weather caused less concentration in the grapes, but wine is very fruity and fresh. Lighter, juicy and lovely acidity with plush, elegant flavors of dark plum, kirsch, and Asian spice. The long finish is powered by dark chocolate and cream notes with medium-grained tannins.
Kassel: Multi-layered, but these present themselves as strata and have not yet blended (if they ever will); sharp cranberry acids, chocolate-covered cherries standing out and a long wooden plank to walk at the end. An intriguing wine though; would be curious to see where it ends up by the time, say, the next World Cup rolls around.
Château Montus ‘La Tyre’, 2007:
Thebaud: Complicated vintage, colder year, a real vintage for winemakers. Hard work in the vineyards and in the cellar. Quite minerally with a nice acidity and good tannins. Deep black cherry and red and black fruit compote; intense spicy notes and some swirls of smoke.
Kassel: Noting an almost cedar-flavored spice behind a creamy, black currant nose; huge fruit in the mouth, bright cranberry and morello cherry, a pleasant earthy crunchiness and black pepper notes, but as expected, again the tannins are serious and brutally self-confident.
Thebaud: Deep wine with ambition, aging slowly with a measured extraction. Freshness of fruit, but slender and racy for a Madiran. Promises a great future, though.
Kassel: Explosive, young and concentrated; the chocolate is huddled beneath a pronounced cherry tartness; a sharp, gunflint style of forwardness lightens the big woody backbone.
Château Montus ‘La Tyre’, 2009:
Thebaud: Great vintage, rich, concentrated, very ripe. Wide range of red fruits, black. Strong notes of black pepper, pulling notes of Mint, Eucalyptus. Precision of the tannins, aromatically extraverted, express has a rare personality, worthy of the greatest.
Kassel: By far the star of the show, with great fruit extraction; wet and sappy aromatics with pomegranate, cherry, tobacco leaf and a wonderful undertone of herbs and licorice. So young, though, that the lip pucker is instinctive and immediate; I can’t imagine this wine being an enjoyable stand-alone beverage for several years yet.
These wines are not merely Madiran wines, they are totemically, unapologetically, comprehensively Madiran wines; they make no pretense to please the palates of the epicene gentry—they are rustic, bombastic wines for a complex, but solidly countryside mentality. They take no prisoners, but if they make friends, they remain friends for the long haul.
Which is a good thing, because most of them will be hanging around the basement awhile before they are civil enough to be introduced to the upstairs gang.