Beginners guide to wine: What are Tannins?
Here's a crash course in one of the most controversial components in wine.
When it’s your job to enlighten the consumer on the significance of wine, you come across a lot of trivial knowledge that may or may not be entirely correct. And it’s understandable when discussing such a vast topic. So to clear the air, I’ve decided to answer a few of the most common questions regarding tannins in wine!
What are Tannins and how do they affect my wine?
Tannins are a structural and textural component in nearly all wine, but most detectable in reds. They are extracted from the seeds, skin, and stems of the grape during fermentation. Oak barrels and staves are also a contributor of tannins. You can notice a wine’s level of tannins by the gritty-drying mouthfeel it leaves on your palate. The back part of you tongue that indicates bitterness when drinking tea or coffee will be triggered as well. Certain wines like cool climate Pinot Noir have very soft and round tannins when modestly extracted. Warm climate Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, has the potential to be very course and astringent due to its thick skins, if not carefully managed in the winery.
I like to relate tannins to grit levels in sandpaper. Light tannins are more similar to fine sand in texture and will be described as delicate, soft, round, or plush. A more noticeably tannic wine could be described as course, grippy, structured, or firm. Whether you think you like tannins or not, they are a key component in a balanced glass of wine. If a wine lacks tannins in ratio to it’s body and intensity, it may seem cloying, or sticky. On the opposing end, if the flavors and body of a wine are lighter than its tannic structure, they can be overpowering and distracting.
Are tannins bad for you?
Some people claim that tannins give them a headache. More often than not the culprit for wine ailments are in the additives used to adulterate poorly made wine. For those who experience outdoor allergies, it could be the extraction of histamines from the soil or oak. Other times it’s simply dehydration.
Tannins, on the contrary, have rather healthy attributes. Polyphenols are a subcategory of antioxidants, best known as the anti-aging chemical in wine. They are found mostly in the phenolic components of a wine, which include tannins. Certain grapes like Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Agiorgitiko, have higher levels than others.
Do they soften with age or breathing?
High tannin wines will certainly soften with some oxygen exposure. They also hint at the wine's ability to age. A few years “in the cellar” (or at the bottom of the pantry) is going to make a bigger difference than an aerator. Most high tannin wines like Barolo, Bordeaux, and some old-school Napa Cabs can use an hour or two in the decanter.
What do I drink if I like softer tannins
As I've mentioned before, it's all trial and error; however, if you wanna place a safe bet on a bottle, I'd look for New World (non-European) Merlot, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Grenache, and those ambiguous blends tend to be very plush.
… and if I do like a more structured wine?
Assuming you have a decent selection at your local wine shop or grocery store, look for thick-skinned varietals from mountainous appellations like Colchagua Chilean Carmenere, Uco Valley Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignon, or Howell Mt. Napa Cabernet Franc. Or visit some classic Old World regions like Bordeaux, Rhone, Rioja, Priorat, Tuscany, Piedmont...
If you have a bottle of wine you think might be a bit tannic for your preference, let it breath in a decanter for an hour, or sip it slowly from the glass and see how it develops. Serving a big structured red with a rich, salty, and fatty meal will certainly flatter the wine. Steak and potatoes, baked pasta, brisket, and other heavy dishes will make your wine seem less astringent than on its own.
Of course, there's more to talk about regarding "tannins in wine", but any more blabbering and I'm afraid I'd be taking the fun out of the topic. Try a few bottles for yourself and let me know what you prefer in the comments. Please reach out if you need any questions, and don't be shy about following or sharing!