Ah, tannin. The feeling you get after a sip of rich red wine that can feel like the gentle scrape of a horsehair paintbrush across the palate… or that you’ve stuffed your mouth with a ten yard bolt of crushed-velvet cloth.
Bleh. At least to the latter.
Of the many attributes of wine — and specifically reds, 95% of the time — tannin is arguably the easiest to detect, but among the most difficult to judge. As noted, the nuance of textures and strength of this element can greatly impact one’s enjoyment of a wine, but its effects can also be mitigated by careful choices with food pairing.
But first, we should define the thing. If we define the thing, we understand it better, and if you’ve read this far in the blog, you know I’m not going to give you a cookie cutter definition. I may not be as creative as Alton Brown with pipe cleaner and string constructions (because who’s going to try and top that???), but perhaps my words can illustrate it just as tidily.
Point one: tannins dry out your mouth. This is not to be confused with the “dryness” of a wine, which is the opposite of “sweetness.” Tannins are astringent; they suck the moisture out of your tongue and cheeks.
In the wider world, you can find tannins in dark chocolate and tea as well as among plants in general. Oak fermentation and maturation can even leave some behind in a wine.
Point two: grapes specifically contain tannin in their stems, seeds and skins.
Combine this second fact with what we know from previous posts — red wines use skin contact to gain their color.
So, the thicker the grape skin, the more tannin exists; if you’re drinking a Pinot Noir, you can reasonably expect less tannin from it than in a Cabernet Sauvignon, since the former has a much thinner skin than the latter.
That is, of course, unless the vintner decides to use what’s called “whole cluster fermentation,” where the stems are included as opposed to being removed for winemaking. +5 tannin, level up!
Alternatively, the winemaker may choose to let the grapes sit on their skins for a longer period of time, extracting more color and more tannin in the process.
And don’t get me started on oak again… Let’s not confuse the issue too much.
Are we having fun yet? *nervous grin*
Point three: tannins are antioxidants and a type of polyphenol.
Without getting too science-y, imagine a young wine’s tannin as a bunch of free floating single, open links in a chain. Since they’re open, they are free to bind with other links, and it actually does that over time, becoming longer and longer, which in turn softens any harshness. Instead of your mouth feeling full of cotton, the wine might instead finish with a light European breeze of dryness given enough time.
I feel like I missed an opportunity to joke about tannin molecules walking into a bar and bonding over a bottle of wine. Hmmm. Oh well. Moving right along, nothing to see here…
In fact, given enough time, tannins will actually form large enough chains to become visible sediment at the bottom of the bottle. This is called “falling out of suspension” and is completely normal with an older wine. Drink this if you really want to (it won’t hurt you), or you can decant the wine and leave it behind entirely.
Most choose to decant. I do.
Point four: Food can help alleviate the strength of a wine’s tannin.
Those ever-increasing links can also bind to fats. Take a big, bold red with tons of tannin like a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Nebbiolo and sip it three or four times, with nothing in between.
Before you start to curse my name and parentage, now take a bite of a delicate, creamy brie and follow with another sip of your wine.
What do you notice? 🙂
The same effect occurs with any foods with a higher fat content. Yes, steak is listed as a traditional pair for red wine, we’ve all heard it, but do experiment with this!
A recommendation that rocked my world: tannic reds with tempura-fried avocado. I’m still reeling from that one, holy cannoli.
Some terms to describe tannins:
For a more in-depth set of tannin adjectives, check out this handy guide compiled by Jacky Blisson, a Master of Wine. She even pairs descriptors with certain wine styles and grapes, which greatly helps newbies like me!
Tannic red wines to try:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Cabernet Franc
What questions do you still have about wine tannin? Let me know in the comments section!