Tannat is being added to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' list of approved grape variety names. As of Nov. 4, the name can now be used on labels to designate a varietal wine made from at least 75 percent Tannat, although the variety is usually blended into other red wines for added color, acidity and tannin.
Long known for its role in the deeply colored, highly tannic wines of southwestern France, particularly those from the Madiran appellation, Tannat has been grown in California since the late 1800s. At that time, the University of California professor of agriculture, Eugene Hilgard, imported the variety and added it to the university's grapevine collection.
Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, Calif., initiated the petition to have Tannat added to the ATF's official list of varietal names. Tablas Creek imported the variety from France in 1992, and four years later, began propagating, planting and selling limited quantities of vines to growers in California, Arizona and Virginia.
Mount Palomar Winery in Temecula has grown Tannat since 1995. But, said owner Peter Poole, "we've never looked at Tannat as a varietal by itself, but as a blender offering color and tannic backbone. We've blended it with Sangiovese and Syrah, but most frequently we've used it in our Meritage blend."
Randall Grahm, owner and winemaker at Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, Calif., has worked with Tannat for several years, first in Madiran and now in California. In Madiran, he currently makes a blend called Heart of Darkness, which is 60 percent Tannat and 40 percent Cabernet Franc.
Grahm and his team have been working to bring Tannat's tannins under control, as he says that wines made predominantly from Tannat are "largely undrinkable." He believes that when grown in California's warmer regions, the variety may offer softer tannins, with more color and fruit than the austere French wines.