It’s Time to Toast Texas Tannat

If you’re like many, your first taste of Tannat was likely from Southwest France’s Madiran region, where it originated. Perhaps it was from Uruguay, where it is the country’s signature variety. Maybe you’ve never even heard of it. After all, Madiran is two hours south of Bordeaux and has long lived in Bordeaux’s shadow.

The dense, thick-skinned grapes contain some of the highest levels of antioxidants of all red wines, and yield wines that are dark and inky, with robust fruit notes and hints of leather and smoke. Depending on how it is vinified, it can come in various styles, which makes it difficult to determine the grape’s typicity. Some wines from Tannat are smooth, structured, and fruit-forward, while others may punch you in the face with abrasive tannins and, in turn, require years of cellaring.

Yes, Tannat can be a tannic beast. Because of its intense, grippy tannins, winemakers have had to use various techniques to soften the wine, including micro-oxygenation, which involves introducing small, controlled amounts of oxygen into the wine, similar to quickly employing the effects of slow barrel aging. Other techniques include shortening the juice’s exposure to the skins or blending it with other grapes to take the edge off.

While it originated in France and enjoys rockstar status in Uruguay, Tannat may also show up in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, South Africa, Italy’s Apulia—and yes, Texas.

Tannat grapes in the vineyard | Photo credit: Bending Branch Winery

Tannat’s Texas Origins

Tannat arrived in the United States in the late 19th century when it was imported into California. In 2002, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms approved it as a single variety for domestic wines. It came to be in Texas around 2006 when Reddy Vineyards planted it in the Texas High Plains AVA. But its prominence in the state is due to the work and passion of two unique figures in the Texas wine industry—Tannat pioneers Dr. Bob Young of Bending Branch Winery and John Rivenburgh of Kerrville Hills Winery.

Dr. Young and Rivenburgh were believers in Tannat from the beginning. They planted their first experimental Tannat vines at Rivenburgh’s house in 2008. It was “only 25 vines, just to see and get an idea if this stuff would grow well, and it grew incredibly well in some very rocky soil,” recalls Dr. Young. After seeing that Tannat could indeed thrive, Dr. Young purchased the land for the Bending Branch Winery estate in 2009. He and Rivenburgh transplanted the vines to the estate vineyard. We took them “from my house up to the Hill Country, and then we never really looked back,” shares Rivenburgh.

Today, Tannat is the tenth-most planted variety in Texas, and that’s increasing. Dr. Young marvels, “It’s gone from nowhere in 2006 to being 10th in the state as of 2019.” And while somewhat awed at how well Tannat has performed in the state, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to him. He was a chemistry major in college, followed by a lengthy career as a doctor. His switch to UC Davis and wine chemistry was a natural progression for him on his path in the grand world of chemistry.

When he was still practicing medicine, Dr. Young became interested in Tannat. He read an article in a medical journal entitled “Red Wine Procyanidins and Vascular Health” and a book by the same author entitled The Red Wine Diet. In a nutshell, procyanidins are polyphenols, softer tasting mid-chain tannins. The author demonstrated that there were vascular protective effects of procyanidins in red wine, and particularly, he found that there were significant levels of these compounds in Tannat. As a doctor, “it really piqued my interest,” recalls Dr. Young. Rivenburgh agrees, “We started looking at it from the standpoint of its tannin levels and its anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins levels for health,” and it just went from there.

Rows of Tannat | Photo credit: Bending Branch Winery

The Texas Tannat Difference

Upon realizing how similarly warm both Southwest France and Uruguay were to Texas, Dr. Young and Rivenburgh correctly concluded that Tannat grapes could survive in Texas. Tannat vines are drought-tolerant, disease-resistant, and produce a thick canopy protecting the fruit from unrelenting sunlight in hot climates. And after a trip out to Paso Robles, seeing it firsthand, Rivenburgh was “hooked to the soul” and convinced that not only could he grow it, but he could grow it well.

After planting the estate Tannat in 2009 and harvesting their first crop in 2011, success came almost immediately. Their inaugural 2011 Bending Branch Estate Tannat CM (the CM is a reference to the cryo-maceration technique used) was an immediate winner. “The first Tannat that I planted in the ground, grew the vines, then made the wine, was the first saddle I won at the Houston Rodeo,” shares Rivenburgh. The wine won Class Champion, Texas Class Champion, and was a Double Gold winner at the 2014 Houston Rodeo Uncorked! International Wine Competition.

While Tannat still requires a winemaker with a deft hand that can tame its tannins, the Texas climate provides a major assist for winemakers. “Here in Texas, I’d say it’s found its sweet spot. It loves the climate here,” Dr. Young shares while explaining that the Texas heat, which is a little more intense than in Southwest France and Uruguay, “has an impact on growing a softer version of it.”

Tannat grapes | Photo credit: Bending Branch Winery

The variety is grown throughout Texas, including the Texas Hill Country and Texas High Plains AVAs. Becoming more concerned over the years with the variable and extreme weather that Texas gets, Dr. Young hedged his bets and planted Tannat in multiple places in the state, “We embarked on a strategy of getting vines out in different places around the state.” Bending Branch alone has 23 acres planted in five different vineyards to ensure that they would have access to Tannat no matter what Mother Nature offered.

The different expressions from the various vineyards are certainly appreciated. Bending Branch’s local estate vineyard in the Hill Country, Lost Pirogue, according to Dr. Young, “tends to make a real full-bodied, dark, brooding type of Tannat.” He continues, “Up in Mason County (a different Hill Country vineyard), it’s more of an elegant Tannat. It doesn’t have quite the intensity of color or tannins and makes a more European-style.” With its larger diurnal swings, the wines from the High Plains also showcase an elegant side of Tannat. For Rivenburgh, the Hill Country brings out some of the best iterations.

While the climate certainly contributes to Tannat’s approachability, winemaking techniques play a significant role. Bending Branch employs several techniques. Dr. Young championed cryo-maceration and Thermoflash fermentation methods to keep the tannins soft but still retain them. “Unlike a lot of other winemakers, I want to extract as much tannin as I can,” says Dr. Young, who sees the structure and longevity that tannins provide as essential. While this may seem counterintuitive with a wine like Tannat, Dr. Young shares that the key is “if you want to extract a lot of tannins, you’ve got to extract a lot of color compounds also because they link together. And when they link together properly, they form these soft tannins or procyanidins.” With the right level of color compounds, tannins stay intact but in a softer form. Rivenburgh agrees that the key to making Tannat is being able to tame the tannins to make it a drinkable wine. For him, extended maceration is the best tool for getting that level where it needs to be.

What’s Next for Texas Tannat

As far as Texas Tannat’s future, it seems to be on an upward trajectory. After striking out on his own, first as a consultant and then forming Kerrville Hills Winery, Rivenburgh remains excited about Tannat. He’s worked with Tannat in multiple wineries and vineyards in the state and continues to sing its praises. He’s even affectionately known as the “Johnny Appleseed of Tannat.” When asked if Tannat can become the state’s signature red, Rivenburgh laughs and concedes, “I’m probably not the right person to ask. Of course, I think it can. I catch some flak from my friends and my colleagues, but I’m not slowing down. I think it’s just a great variety. I think it’s something that we can work with continuously and will give us some identity moving forward in the future.” Though Tannat is “a subject that is near and dear to [his] heart,” Rivenburgh sees the future of Texas as one of great diversity. “The beautiful thing about Texas is not what specific variety we can make, but the diversity of the varieties that we can make.”

Dr. Young agrees with Tannat’s potential to be a game-changer. “In my mind, it can compete with Cabernet and Bordeaux wines if done correctly.” And for many, it is regarded as the Texas answer to Cabernet Sauvignon.

Barrel room | Photo credit: Kerrville Hills Winery

Tannat has also provided winemakers with a great deal of flexibility. Single vineyard, multi-vineyard blends, and even rosé wines from the grape are becoming more popular. Kerrville Hills makes a wildly popular rosé, and Bending Branch produces both a still and frizzante rosé and a Tannat-based port-style wine. Dr. Young still chuckles when he recalls when he was told years ago, “Don’t even try to make rosé from Tannat. Tannat is so big and bold; it’s not supposed to make rosé. But it does indeed make a lovely rosé.” And it appears he had the last laugh as Bending Branch tripled its production of Tannat Rosé from 2020 to 2021.

Whatever the future holds, Texans seem squarely on board with Tannat as the demand continues to grow. Because of its higher tannin levels, Tannat begs for protein-rich and fatty foods. In France, it is often paired with cassoulet and duck confit. But in Texas, it is right at home with the state’s signature smoked brisket, grilled wild game, sizzling beef fajitas, and those big Texas ribeye steaks.

In addition to Bending Branch Winery and Kerrville Hills Winery, other notable Texas Tannat producers include:

1851 Vineyards
Ab Astris Winery
Cicada Cellars
Pedernales Cellars
Westcave Cellars
William Chris Vineyards