You pop the cork and let the wine breathe. Soon you’re giving it a swirl and savoring the first sip. An astringent feeling spreads over your tongue, the front of your mouth is pleasantly prickly, and even your teeth feel dry. What’s the secret source of this pucker power? The tannins!
The word origin & science
The origin of the word “tannin” is actually a description of the process that transforms animal hides into leather and the dying of fabric by using plant extracts. Tannins come from the stems, seeds and skin of the wine grape, and grapes with thicker skins have the most tannins. Tannins are polyphenols which bind themselves to proteins, such as the proteins found in our saliva. It’s this textural element that makes many wines taste dry.
You probably think of tannins mostly being found in red wine, but did you know that they can also be in white wines that are barrel-aged? The oak barrels themselves have tannins, and the type and age barrel used has a big influence on the type of tannins produced.
What do tannins do?
Tannins clarify the wine and preserve it for aging. They give the wine complexity, prevent that “flabby” feeling, and extend the finish as well. Tannins are stronger in younger red wines and will soften with age, so wines with higher tannins age better than those with lower tannins.
If you find a red wine you love, try this: buy a number of bottles for your cellar to be enjoyed at different intervals of time. You will see how the wine will soften and in general the beauty of the aging process. I once saw an ad for a beauty product that contained this line: “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.” This should have been written about wine!
Do you like it soft, or a little rough?
The love of high or low tannins is really a matter of personal preference. We use descriptors like “soft” to describe a wine with low tannins, “harsh” to describe high tannins, “round” to indicate well-balanced, and “supple” for well-balanced and fruity.
Wines with high tannins include Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Montepulciano, Petit Verdot, and Petite Sirah. Wines with low tannins include Barbera, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Primitivo, Grenache and Merlot. Grenache and Merlot are among the lowest tannin wines, often blended in a wine with stronger tannins to smooth and soften the texture and taste.
Wine and food pairing
Tannic wines and fatty dishes are both a perfect pairing and a study in contrasts. The smooth, silky, buttery texture of fats alleviates the dry sensation of the tannins, and the tannins cut through the richness of the fat. Pair a high tannin wine like Cabernet Sauvignon with steak, lamb, grilled meat, cheeses….YUM!
What’s your preference?
Do you enjoy that rough, dry feeling of tannic wines? Or do you like a softer wine? Tell us your preference in the comment section!
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