Tannins are one of the most intellectually engaging facets of wine, and also one of the most misunderstood. So what exactly is tannin? Tannin is a naturally occurring polyphenol that can be found in walnuts, almonds, dark chocolate, espresso, tea leaves, clove, quince, pomegranate, and of course, grapes. When considering the structural components of a wine, tannin—like acidity— is one of the most important. Tannins strongly influence the pairing ability, aging potential, and mouthfeel of a wine. But, tannins are often confused with the dryness level of a wine, because tannins dry out your mouth. When attempting to communicate what they like, many guests will tell you some variation of, “I like a wine that’s not too dry.” Generally when you hear this, you can assume they are not referring to a wine with some residual sugar—instead, they mean a wine with more restrained tannins. Some grape varieties that are naturally low in tannin include Pinot Noir, Gamay, Barbera, and Grenache. Varietals with naturally high amounts of tannin include Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Syrah, and Mourvedre. To make things even more obfuscated, the perception of tannin on the palate can vary quite a bit depending on the other structural elements of the wine, and what you or may not be eating at the time. Grape tannins are present in the skins, the seeds, and the stems of the vitis vinfera plant, and oak barrels also contribute tannin to a finished wine. Since white wines often have very little contact with their skins during the winemaking process, tannins are really only relevant when discussing red wines, orange wines, and longer skin-contact roses.
The Architecture of Happiness: Tannins and Structural Integrity
Structure can be a difficult thing to describe; the French will sometimes refer to a wine’s ‘skeleton,’ or ‘backbone,’ and when I think of structure, I think of the texture and architecture of a wine. The amount (and quality) of tannins are the most critical determining factor of this architecture, and from a sensory standpoint, they contribute a taste and a feeling that is distinct. Tannins dry out the tissues of your mouth and taste astringent, or bitter. When the tannins in the grapes have reached physiological maturity, the finished wine’s tannins may not jump out at you right away, but the wine will possess a commanding structure. Likewise, if the tannins did not reach physiological maturity before the time of harvest, the wine will ultimately taste unpleasantly astringent and harsh. In an ideal world, all wine grapes would receive enough sun and a long enough hang-time for the acidity to drop, the sugar levels to rise, and the tannins to reach full ripeness. However, this doesn’t always happen, as we all know from tasting wines that are thin, herbaceous and astringent (think cool-vintage Bordeaux when there was too much rain) or overly-ripe, fruity wines that feel cloying on the palate (mass-produced blends from Paso Robles get the point across). To be a more discerning taster, think not just about the level of tannin in the next wine that you taste, but also the ripeness and quality of the tannin. With a clearly delineated architecture, a wine seems more impressive on the palate and also possesses a formidable beauty. Need tangible proof? Try a bottle of Corison—it’s the Angelina Jolie of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Built to Last: the Relationship Between Tannins and Aging Potential
It’s no coincidence that most collectors gravitate towards Bordeaux, Super Tuscans, Barolos, and Napa Cabernets. These are all wines that have higher tannins, and thus a better chance at aging more gracefully. Tannin, like acidity and sugar, is a natural preservative. As wine ages, the tannins become mellower and precipitate out in the form of sediment. This is one of the reasons why you’re likely to get more cellaring time out of a Barbaresco than you are a Burgundy. A shack with a thatched roof may provide shelter in the short term, but it’s solid stone castles that stand the test of time—the same is true with wine.
Marrying Well: How to Pair Tannic Wines with Food
Some wines are the libation equivalent of Clint Eastwood, and some are more akin to Don Draper. The chemical reason behind why some wines possess so much grip is because tannin molecules bind to the proteins in your saliva. So it’s not technically the tannins that dry your mouth, it’s the fact that your saliva can no longer adequately lubricate your palate, causing the tissues in your mouth to rub together and feel dry. Tannins are easily influenced by food, which is why eating a steak with a glass of Cabernet can help to ‘resolve’ the tannins. Tannins help to ‘cleanse’ the palate of fattiness, and also provide a ‘tenderizing’ effect for foods with lots of muscle fiber. Just be careful pairing tannic wines with salty or spicy foods—salt and heat are a magnifier that make wines taste even more tannic.
By Amanda Woodward, Wally’s Sommelier