(So what’s the deal with that pic of tea up there? Not to worry, all will become clear.)
Today we’re going to tackle an often little understood wine basic: tannin.
Oh, how many times have I heard tannin dissed by wine shoppers who don’t understand its reason for being, or heard at a wine tasting, “I don’t like red wine, because I don’t like tannin?” So many. So.very.many.
So what is this stuff that turns people off so, or even – gasp – keeps them from enjoying red wine at all?
Here’s the deal: tannin is a compound found in the skins, stems and seeds of grapes. It’s also found in wood, such as the oak barrels some wine is aged in. It’s present in tea, and in the skins of walnuts. Which is why when you consume any of those things, you sometimes taste a slight bitterness or get that pucker of astringency or dry sensation – it comes from the presence of tannin. Tannin is not a taste, it’s a tactile sensation.
You will notice it in red wine because when red wine is made, the grape skins are fermented with the juice, which imparts tannin and red color to the wine. White wine doesn’t ferment with its skins, so the levels of tannin in white wine are mostly imperceptible.
Tannins are a natural preservative, and help give wine structure and texture; tannin, along with acidity, is the main reason some wines improve with age. As wine ages, tannins soften and become less noticeable; the tannins mellow into the wine and give it more complexity and a softer texture. Tannin can also give balance to a rich, fruit-driven wine.
Oh, and one reason that big, bold Cabernet Sauvignon goes so well with steak? The proteins and fats in the meat tame the tannin in the wine and the tannin in the wine helps cleanse your palate of the fats and oils in the rich meat. (Personally, I think there’s way more to that sublime match than the science, but there ya go.)
So see, tannins are good. (Mostly.There are exceptions to everything.)
What you don’t want to do is drink a young, tannic wine before its time. But one thing you can do to ease the tannic effect is to decant a tannic wine for an hour or so. The aeration will mellow it out.
So which wines are the most tannic? Well Cabernets meant for aging tend to be, Italian Brunello di Montalcino is, Syrah, Shiraz, Rhone blends, some Zinfandels, and the most tannic wine I’ve ever had, Italian Nebbiolo. Yowsa.
Young, fruity wines made from thinner-skinned grapes tend to be less tannic – Beaujolais and Pinot Noir, for example. Of course this is just a cursory overview of the topic, so this isn’t the definitive list of tannic and non-tannic red wines. Your local wine merchant can help you when shopping for red wine if you want to embrace, or shy away from, wines with tannin.
So there you have it.