Wine Components: Tannin

One question leads to another!

Question from Jim: Thanks for you reply. “Practicing” sounds like a lot of fun! You mentioned acid and tannin. What are they and why are they important?

Reply: Nice to hear back from you, Jim! Another good question. I’ll take one component at a time so this isn’t too long. Let’s start with tannin.

Winemakers love tannin because it’s an antioxidant – a natural preservative. It’s the thing that’s supposed to make red wine “heart smart”. It’s found in lots of fruits and vegetables, in tea and oak, among many other things.

The biggest source of tannin in wine is the grape skins. Other sources are the seeds, stems and oak (wine barrels contribute wood tannin if they’re relatively new). Red wines are almost always higher in tannin than white, because the winemaker must ferment the juice and skins together to get the purple color.  The juice of most wine grapes is clear, regardless of the skin color. Along with color, the skins contribute flavor, texture, heft and tannin. The extracts from the skins are responsible, to a great extent, for our perception that red wine is more like food than white wine.

Some varieties are more tannic than others and the variation is mainly due to the thickness of the grape skin. Cabernet Sauvignon is thick skinned and fairly reliably tannic compared to Pinot Noir, a thin-skinned grape. 

As I said in the last post, tannin has a drying effect. It runs around your mouth seeking out protein and then gloms on to it so you get a sense of grip. It also makes your teeth feel furry.

Why do you care? Well, tannin is part of the wine’s texture. A chalky sensation is too tannic, a chewy mouthfeel is appealing to lots of folks. 

It’s also part of a group called polyphenols, and these anti-oxidants help prolong the wine’s life.  The more tannic the wine, provided it’s balanced with the other components, the longer its life in the bottle, when stored properly. So tannic red wine is astringent in its youth but, with bottle aging, tannin decreases and the wine feels softer and more velvety on the palate. And, aging is the only way to bring out the subtle, complex secondary aromas and flavors, beyond youthful fruitiness. The only way to find out if you like these secondary characteristics is to try a few well-aged reds. Sometimes it’s an acquired taste. 

I hope that helps! On to acid, next!

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