After three decades in the wine business, as a consultant for major operations like Bogle and Rutherford Hill, Eric Laumann is most excited today about a red grape few in California have heard of: tannat, an inky varietal offering blackberry and licorice flavors that hails from southwestern France and may be best known as Uruguay’s national grape. In 2002, the UC Davis-educated, Santa Cruz-based winemaker grafted two acres of the Rocosa Loma Vineyard outside Greenfield over to tannat, which he harvests at between 2.5 and 3.5 tons per acre and makes into about 400 cases of wine annually at his Cambiata Winery in King. He’ll be in Santa Barbara on November 14 to lead a tasting for the American Wine Society’s S.B. chapter, and he took a break from his 31st harvest to discuss the grape.
How’d you get into tannat? I was working at Bonny Doon and we were making “Heart of Darkness,” a tannat-cab franc blend from the Madiran region of France. I thought it was a really neat grape, but Madiran makes it in a very Old World style. I thought it was something you could put a California perspective on. Also, when I started making it, consumers were really gaining a lot of interest in bigger reds. This was a red grape that had a lot of those ripe characteristics but retains a higher acidity. You can make the big red wine but keep them balanced.
What’s the challenge of growing tannat? It loves to overcrop, so we’ve learned to restrict the water, and we’ve kept cutting it back down to one cluster per shoot. But the clusters have a lot of wings, almost like zinfandel; we’ll actually go through and give each cluster a haircut and cut off some wings.
Is more being grown? There’s a lot going on. Worldwide, plantings are up 100 percent over the last 10 years. There’s a lot going on in Paso, a couple guys are growing it in Monterey, and there’s a handful of guys doing it in Napa and also in Lodi. I’ve got a good cult following for it, but winemakers go crazy because it’s a big red grape that is still a food wine.
How are consumers reacting? You get amazing emails. You get the impression that they were written late at night after drinking too much tannat, but it’s just a big red. It has to make an impression on people. It’s a wine that you walk away remembering.
Try tannat on Wednesday, November 14, 6-8:30 p.m., at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. Tickets are on sale at awssb.org.