The Basics: What’s Tannin?

16 03 2011

If you’re just getting into wine, you’re finding out that there is a LOT of information to assimilate and some steep learning to do.  Some of it, like figuring out the grape varieties and the major wine regions and the top producers, isn’t so bad, because it primarily just involves drinking a lot.  But other stuff, like the never-ending list of vocabulary that goes into describing a wine, is a lot trickier and can often become a barrier that increases the intimidation factor of wine to the point where many people decide it’s not worth the effort.

This should clear everything up...

For me, one of the terms in the wine glossary that I had the most trouble with was tannin.  Every wine review you see (including my own reviews below) makes reference to a particular bottle’s smooth, silky, bitter, soft, graceful, harsh or (stop me anytime) aggressive tannins…I had no idea what any of this meant until a couple years ago, well after I had started buying wine regularly.  Since it turns out that tannin is one of the basic building blocks of red wine and something that has to be understood by any would-be wine lover sooner or later, here’s my attempt at a primer.

Tannins are compounds found in the seeds, skins and stems of wine grapes.  They are odourless, but when tasted, they cause a mouth-drying, tongue-coating, fuzzy-teeth sensation, like your mouth is suddenly filled with cotton balls.  They can also have a slightly bitter aftertaste, although they don’t have much other flavour.  Tannins are primarily noticeable in red wine as compared to white wine because of the differences in how the two types of wine are made:  red wine gets its colour from the fact that the grape juice used to create it is fermented while in contact with the grapes’ skins (and sometimes stems), which contain tannins that leach into the juice, whereas white wine is fermented after the grape juice is separated from the skins/stems, so little to no tannin is imparted into it.  After wine is made, it is often aged in oak barrels, and that oak also contains tannins that can wind up in the wine.

Tannins, anyone?

The main thing tannin does for red wine is give it structure and backbone, a framework within which the other elements of the wine can operate.  Tannins are also great preservatives:  the nemesis of wine aging is oxygen, which causes wine to lose flavour and go stale then bad with even minimal exposure, but tannins have antioxidant features that allow some of the best red wines to age for decades.  While the mouth-drying, bitter taste sensation is really noticeable when red wines are young, as the wine ages the tannins mellow out and stop having quite as dramatic an effect.

Your homemade tannin detector

So that’s 430-odd words about tannins, but I’m still not sure if it’s clear how to tell they’re in your wine.  Here’s an easy at-home tannin detector test:  Brew a cup of black tea, but instead of steeping the tea for only a few minutes like you would usually do, leave the teabag in the cup for a half hour or so.  When you finally taste the (presumably now lukewarm and crazily strong) tea, it will be super tannic:  bitter, astringent, mouth-puckering, teeth-coating, and not all that pleasant.  Swish that around in your mouth for a few seconds, and you will never have a problem detecting tannin in red wine again.

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