Did You Say Tannat Vertical Wine Dinner? Yes, Please!

Wouldn’t you say yes to the tannat? I know I would. And if you seat me at the Winemaker’s Table? I might actually in fact “squeeeeee.”

I really was looking forward to this event. I mean, this is seven years of Tannat stored up, paired very intentionally with food by Nomad Provisions (no website, facebook link only), and served in a thoughtful order that highlights characteristics of this varietal that must be experienced to be understood. Education, science, farming, food, wine, all coming together in one glorious evening. And all this happened shortly after a lovely sampling of new white wine releases too. My instagram post called this day “Perfection, with a side of tortilla chips.” I mean, you need a base for all this wine, right?

Let’s get real. Jason Murray has been making Tannat in Virginia way before it was cool. He saw the immense potential of this grape for this soil. He knew it would be more than the blending grape that was unlikely to be a single varietal in France or most of the world. He knew Virginia had the right climate and right soil to ensure that ripening came at the right time and put the right balance between flavors and acidity in the wine to bottle an incredible example of this wine.

Our evening began with Jason talking through the format and the decisions around not holding the event as a chronological comparison of the vintages. Rather, there was intention to showing how Tannat responds in extreme years to showing it in more “normal” years that produced a good, typical example. As such, we started with the 2020 vintage paired with cheese and bread. Nomad uses local foods, which fits well with the philosophy of only using the things that are of this place – to make the wine, to make the food, to experience the moment. The 2020 was just lovely and drinkable wine – not quite the full-on punch I normally get from Tannat – it’s the current release and should be grabbed as fast as you can – I don’t know how much is left. It’s a good expression of this grape from a year that was cooler than average so it didn’t build as much intensity.

Jason started the discussion after we were into our cheese and 2020 Tannat with a focus on why Tannat is a good fit for Virginia. Tannat is very responsive to where it is grown, and cannot be grown just anywhere. It needs an environment that fosters acid retention in the developing grapes, which means warm days and warm nights to get the balance right. That’s harder on the west coast where grape growing areas that are coastal or more like desert get cold overnight, though the days can be nice and hot. That will shift the acids and prevent grapes from metabolizing acid, thus preventing balance. Hence Tannat works here as well as Uruguay. With that acid just right, you get vivid flavors, ripe and soft tannins and a very balanced acidity.

Within these caveats, Tannat has to be protected from the coldest cold swings too. I used to think this grape was indestructible, but then we learned of the loss of Seven Oaks’ vineyard Tannat and the loss of other vines that got damaged by being below the frost line. The current estate planting is in that sweet spot between 700 feet and 1100 feet above sea level where the cold air drops down to the valley floor and stays above this band in the atmosphere. Physics is really cool like that. Physics saved the tannat. So glad I took it 37 years ago.

Next we were brought the 2018 Tannat with the tomato soufflé. I can’t rave enough about this dish – it was simply wonderful – from the parmesan crisp to whatever was stuffing the tomato and the tomato itself. The Tannat from 2018 is showing in the most interesting way. Remember that this was a wet, terrible growing year and harvest season during hurricane remnants passing through NoVa. Jason mentioned that the temperature also made it like growing in southeastern Pennsylvania – it was cooler than Virginia. I found the tannat felt like it had spices from the cabinet (I want to say some of those interesting ones like anise or cardamom or something like that) followed by a very, very dry, astringent tannat sensation. I remember tasting this in 2020 at the release, and being shocked by how good it was when no other Virginia wineries were even releasing 2018 reds – maybe only rosé. I would say that it has changed significantly since release, and Jason noted that Tannat makes a wine that you don’t really know what you have until it’s a year in bottle, then you can see how characteristics are manifesting and evolving. This 2018 is certainly evolving. With lower acid tannat paired with the tomato, this was perfection – the fascinating flavors in the tannat just meshed in a gorgeous way. This could have been my entire meal and I would have gushed in this post about it. I eat a lot, so I would have needed four or five though.

Our main course was quite a meal with lamb chops and roasted veggies. We had four glasses of tannat with this – one each from 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017. The 2013, it must be noted, was from vineyards Jason had not previously used, and in 2014, Tannat at one of his contracted vineyards died in the cold 2013 winter (hence no 2014 single-varietal Tannat – what lived got blended). But what a lineup this was!

What a plate. What incredible flavors to pair with the tannats from these years. These years had much more typical growing seasons to bring all the factors into balance – temperate, not too much nor too little rain, safe harvesting season right on time. What’s notable is that the 2017 tannat was the first to include estate grapes for tannat, blending with the Seven Oaks site (and note that in winter 2018, the remaining Seven Oaks tannat was killed by the winter cold that wiped out my beloved malbec too). But all of these played so well off the lamb and vegetables, and they were such excellent representatives of balanced tannat. This was a perfect main course. I honestly adored each glass, and gravitated towards the 2016 and 2017, maybe because I’m basically basic and like things to taste the way they do in “normal” times, but also because what is most interesting about tannat comes through – the balance of acid, punch and dark fruit flavors.

Finally we had dessert with the 2019 Tannat. Remember that 2019 had long dry spells and put tremendous stress on the vines and grapes. Jason described the grapes as having “raisined” on him at harvest time. This led to a juice that showed up with 32 brix in the fermenter. It swelled to high alcohol, and to higher order alcohol, which Jason explained means that is has a different chemical structure for alcohol made once it goes over 16% – this alcohol tastes sweet even though it’s less than 0.5% residual sugar. This made him think of Spanish wines that are higher in alcohol. I remember tasting it and being shocked that it wasn’t Late Harvest Tannat because of the sweet sensation. I still have one in my basement. Our sample was less sweet than I recall it being on release and paired so well with the raspberry and chocolate truffles for dessert. It’s an interesting wine that continues to evolve, and I cannot wait to check mine out.

Of all of these, probably the 2016 and 2017 were my favorite – they just evoked that clean, drinkable tannat that was big and juicy. Jason shared that on an international basis, single-varietal tannat is held for ten years to get to drinkable. In Virginia’s climate we can get there in two and hold it – the 2013 was drinking just lovely, and at the Winemaker’s Table, some said the ’13 was their favorite! There was not a single glass that I disliked, but I’d rank the 2017, 2016, and 2020 as the tops.

It turns out that I have a 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020 Arterra Tannat in my basement (I can’t call it a cellar because that makes me sound educated and bougie, so it’s literally my basement). I’m going to need to set up my own vertical event! Gotta get that husband working on the menu…

Rumor has it that Arterra may have enough library tannat to do this again – if they do, grab a ticket and go – between the education about tannat and the food pairings, as well as the fascinating discussion of how the growing season makes shifts in what we taste, you will have an engaging and unforgettable experience.

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