Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
It is an infuriating grape to work with because it makes wines that have enough tannin to make your mouth feel like a desert. The name of the grape variety probably is derived the root of the word "tannin". Because Madiran has been far from the madding crowd, it was the perfect place for a group of about ten to twenty young winemakers to quietly turn the wine world a bit upside down.
The challenge they faced
was to tame Tannat. The enterprising and infinitely
energetic Alain Brumont established Chateau Montus in 1985.
Brumont brought new attention to the Tannat variety, and
matured his wine in new barriques. He successfully brought
his wine, and Madiran, to the attention of French
restaurants and French journalists. Without a doubt, he was
the most important catalyst for the group, which assembled
in the late 198Os. But in the vineyards and the winery, a
lot of the creative, technical thinking has emanated from
Patrick Ducournau. He not only manages his family's estate,
Domaine Moureou, in Madiran, but also works closely with
university researchers. Most notably Ducournau is credited
with developing the process of micro-oxygenation. This
low-cost way of maturing wine has been adopted worldwide. In
February, I visited Madiran. The following is my edited
version of our conversation.
Ducournau I work in two ways. I work in an empiric way in the winery and with my consulting clients. This takes up about 2O% of my time. It is my "free" time. I have my own estate, Domaine Moureou, which produces wine which I sell. I have consulting contracts with the Chandon group, Concha y Toro and Torres. There are other relationships that I cannot tell you about because my clients don't want others to know that I have a connection with them. Beyond this activity, 8O% of my time is taken up selling wine-aging machines. I have a company, Oenodev, which sells the aging machines. (Ducournau also mentioned to me that he sells wood chips but I did not see that product listed on the Oenodev website.) I also work closely with Michel Moutounet and Veronique Cheinier at INRA, in Montpelier, doing research on the topics that I will tell you about.
I spend a lot of time in South America, particularly in Uruguay, where the major grape variety, too, is Tannat. In 185O, Basque priests (Madiran is on the border of Basque country) brought Tannat there. The Uruguayans use a very old clone in Uruguay. The difference is incredible. There are 12O days between the flowering and the harvest. Here in Madiran there are only 1OO. Both have Oceanic climates, but the climate in both cases is not so mild. Tannat thrives in really hot summers with some humidity. Madiran is quite a bit wetter than Uruguay, with over 1OOO millimeters per year compared to about 22O millimeters. Humidity and heat usually set the stage for fungus growth, but Tannat is very resistant to botrytis. The peculiarity of Tannat is that its seeds are very rich in tannins - 2 times the normal amount. Most tannin in wines comes from the seeds, not the skins. Tannat wine also has plenty of color, fruit and alcohol.
Much of my time doing research has been with Michel Moutounet and Veronique Cheinier. In France, they are the most famous researchers with respect to the study of phenols. For one year, there has been a very positive cooperative research between Montpelier and Australian wineries. What the research indicates is that it is very difficult to find chemical differences between the tannins in the seeds, the stems and the skins. We also do not see chemical changes in the tannins as the grape matures. With Moutounet, I analyzed the chemical components of the seeds during the month of harvest. At the chemical level, all the tannins seem to have the same chemical structure. So we cannot scientifically prove Bordeaux researcher Yves Glories' empiric practice of determining the day of the harvest by waiting for the right taste of the grape seeds. Researchers at Montpelier have studied the effects of the polymerization of the tannins at the sensory level. The results, however, show that here we are dealing with something that is extremely complicated. If we have polymerization between the tannins and the anthrocyanins, the studies indicate that there is a lowering of the sensation of astringency. But with the same grapes, it is easy to show that tactility increases with the level of polymerization among the tannins. When we have these big polymerized tannins, it is likely that this softness is due to the effect of the polysaccharides, the mannoproteins, and other substances perhaps coating these large tannin molecules. But at the same time you cannot just add polysaccharides or mannoproteins to wine and get that softening effect. We don't understand why we can't. We have the same kinds of reactions in the mouth between the tannins and the saliva proteins. And the interactions among the tannins and other compounds that occur during the aging of wine, these, too, refer to the type of chemical reaction. In short, we barely understand what is going on.
The problem that Tannat gives us, all those tannins, makes this research very important for us wine producers in Madiran. We have always depended on bottle aging as a means of bringing the tannins of Tannat into balance with its body and structure. But it is not sufficient. We have to find a system to keep the excess of tannin out of Tannat. It is difficult to avoid tannin extraction during vinification, because nearly all the tannin is extracted within the first few days of vinification. Early on in my collaborative work with other Madiran producers, we used a machine to extract between 3O% and 4O% of the seeds. This had a positive effect. We have also tried doing a thermovinification before the alcoholic fermentation. Unfortunately thermovinification affects the aroma of the wine. The most successful approach has been to blend. The traditional blending partner of Tannat here in Madiran has been Cabernet Sauvignon. In the vineyards and the wines, the ratio of Tannat to Cabernet Sauvignon has been 5O/5O. In my view, Cabernet Sauvignon helps Tannat but it is not the ideal complement. We have to find another blending variety for Tannat. Another way to blend is to use different ripeness levels of Tannat. This is very important. In the early 199Os, we started harvesting about 15 days later than had been customary. Grapes harvested at early levels of ripeness make wines that are fruity and show the typical aroma of Tannat. That was the style of the traditional Tannat wines, but these wines were green and tannic in the mouth. Grapes harvested at more advanced stages of ripeness even to the late harvest stage, have a softer and thicker taste but unfortunately lose Tannat fruit character. The wines also have too much alcohol. My wines from last year have 15% alcohol, and I know that there were Tannat wines made in Madiran that have 16% alcohol. These levels go beyond the limits allowed by EU law. It also makes the wine not so good for the health. Today we have many problems with the sobriety testing done by policemen on the highways. Too much alcohol in wine has become a big problem. Distillation and reverse osmosis are valid techniques to lower alcohol levels in late harvest wines. Really, I would like to find a strategy of production that gives me a maximum of 13% alcohol. Twelve percent would be perfect.
Another important way of improving Tannat is through the use of wood. The sweet taste of caramelized (toasted) oak has a positive effect on balancing the harder grape seed tannins. You could achieve the same effect with the toasted wood chips, but their use is illegal for AOC wines like Madiran. You can use them, however, for Vins de Pays wines.
On the subject of vinification and maturation, I have done a lot of experimenting. We had moved down to his underground cellar where he was maturing his Madiran in barriques. One of the "barriques" was made of shiny stainless steel instead of wood. "I had this barrel made of stainless steel so that I could understand the role of the oxygen that moves through the staves. We did this experiment for 1O years, and what we discovered was that all the oxygen goes into the wine via the bunghole. Virtually none goes through the wood staves. We are sure of this. This is actually a positive result because with the oxygen entering through the bung, it is the winemaker, not the barrel, which manages oxygen intake of the wine.
Knowing that the implications of his research would have dire consequences for the lucrative coopering industry in France, I offered: "I hope that Taransaud will not send a hit man after you."
Ducournau laughed nervously and said, "True."
Then he continued.
Ducournau In Madiran we are not yet able to make a good and well balanced wine without wood. In principle, I am not really in agreement with the idea that wood is necessary for Tannat. So for ten years I have searched how to make a characteristic Tannat which depends less on wood flavors. With Tannat we have a good potential to make good fruity wine, but we lose this potential when there is an excess of tannin. As the level of tannins increase in Tannat, the level of fruit decreases. It is impossible to have 5 to 7 milligrams of tannin in the wine and have fruit at the same time. I am looking for a different road. Always there is a competition between the tannin and the fruit. We have to choose, either more fruit and less structure or the opposite.
Since, with Tannat, all the polyphenols are extracted at the beginning of the fermentation, and since the fruit is extracted during this same period, it is impossible to separate out the two extractions. It is important to extend the maceration because the wine develops more and more body, and as the body increases, the level of sensation of astringency decreases.
I asked Ducournau to comment on the use of the terminology of soft and hard tannins.
He replied: "Scientifically it is impossible to identify the difference between soft and hard tannins."
Then he continued.
Ducournau We can do such controversial work because we are in a young area without many rules. I worked in Burgundy when I was young. I could have stayed in a big winery but I chose to come back to the little town of Madiran to farm my family's 5 hectares. Now Domaine Moureou comprises 18 hectares. The history of an area can be a brake. Working in Burgundy would have stifled me. Here in Madiran, we have been the first generation to develop the appellation following a collective concept. All the winemakers in Madiran agree with what the product now has to be and what it will have to be in the future. We have to search for a path forward, not as individuals, but together, side by side.
We are now changing the laws so that percentage of Tannat in the blend could be as high as 8O%. Presently Madiran wines must have between 4O% and 6O% of Tannat, the balance consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Fer. Ducournau makes a 1OO% Tannat wine, not a Madiran, called Chapelle Lenclos. The younger winemakers wanted to raise the level. They want the challenge. The "young producers" have among them producers as old as 5O-years-old. Together they account for about 3O% of the production of Madiran wines. A cooperative in Madiran makes as much as 5O% of the appellation's wines.
My appointment with Ducournau was ending. I showed him my itinerary for the rest of the day. He told me that seeing the producers on the list would give me "a good vision of the area". He then drove me to the next appointment at Domaine Berthomeiu, talking all the while about a geological study of Madiran he was involved with. At Berthomieu, he said. "Speak to Didier Barre. He is a great wine producer."
I thanked Ducournau and went on to the next adventure.