On tannins

The other day I got an email asking me about tannins. I mentioned tannins in a training session we were running for the sales team and the person wanted to explore and understand what I meant by different types and where they came from. And it’s a fair question. If you’re just starting out in wine, the wine world can be a little convoluted but let that not stop you from being curious and enjoying wine. You don’t need to know any of these details, you could just sit back and enjoy the lovely beverage of your choice or you could follow me down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland and learn about wine. 

I fell down that rabbit hole more than a decade ago now. There have been triumphs and major lows, but it is a wonderland all the same. As someone said, if you don’t have the lows how would you identify the highs? Now let me take you on a tannin journey.

So tannins… What are tannins?

The Oxford Companion to Wine, arguably one of the most authoritative books on wine around, describes tannins as “diverse and complex group of chemical compounds that occur in the bark of many trees and in fruits” What this essentially means, is that tannin is not just found in wine and that’s the great news. Often you hear people referring to strongly brewed black tea, but the same can be said of green tea. It’s the drying sensation on the tongue and gums or “the sensation of astringency”. 

If you’ve ever made the mistake of eating green (underripe) fruit, like I did as a 6 year old when trying a banana for the first time, you’ll know exactly what tannins are. However, not all tannins are the same and not all feel the same. 

Where do tannins come from?

There are upto 5 potential sources of tannin in wine:

  1. Grape skins
  2. Grape seeds
  3. Stems
  4. Oak
  5. Additions e.g. liquid tannin or ‘tea bags’ 

Anything grape related, that is skins or seeds, would be dependent on how ripe the grapes are, whether the wine was macerated (kept as liquid) on skins before or after fermentation (usually done to extract colour and/or flavour), whether seeds are crushed or the winemaker avoids crushing the seeds, whether the winemaker de-stems or uses partial or whole bunch, whether they use oak and how much, new or old oak, toast level of oak barrels, how long you keep the wine in oak, and whether you ferment in the oak or use for maturation only, how old the oak is, and lets not forget type of oak (French, American, Hungarian, or). 

Confused yet? But wait, there’s more things to consider!

Other fermentation vessels also have an impact, with cement tending to produce softer tannins in wine (porous rough surface so they tend to bind to the surface). You may have heard of egg shaped fermentors? Well, they are great for producing softer tannins and mixing the wine during fermentation. Also throw in your post winemaking, pre-bottling treatment options – whether you filter and if you do, how. Tannins also drop out over time and polymerise with age, hence the deposits in red wines. Quite a complex mix of things that can impact your experience of tannins in the glass.

Not to forget the taster’s experience, are they enjoying the wine cold, warm or hot? Are they eating food, and if so what type of food? What type of vessel are they drinking from? 

We won’t discuss the fifth option, no decent wine has ever been made that way and the less said the better.

So how do we make this easier to digest?

There’s a couple of short cuts, and depending on your experience and ‘tasting’ ability. I say ‘tasting ability’, and I only mean how much exposure you’ve had to training in tasting wine previously. After all, we all have a tasting ability – unless you are one of the few people unlucky enough to be born with or acquire through accident an inability to taste, or more importantly smell.

Tannins are textural beasts – it’s all about the feel, not the taste. I found thinking of different fabric types at first helped when getting into wine, so if you can feel the velvet, cotton, jean, silk and satin. The texture you feel with your fingers, whether smooth or rough (and how rough) can be juxtaposed onto what you feel with your tongue. Try it – this is not weird.

If fabric is not your thing, how about soil? You will either need a decent imagination or go outside. Boulders, sand, fine sand or silt. Look at it, feel it. How about loam, that stuff with organic components? It has stringy vegetal elements throughout – some tannins can feel stringy.

Why do we care about tannins?

Well, they are there to give wine structure and protect from oxygen degradation, otherwise referred to as antioxidants, and therefore longevity of the wine. They can also contribute to flavour, with some tannins giving a bitter note. Chewy tannins, like those found in some Pinot Noirs and Syrahs can add a tactile element to the wine, giving it depth. So overall, if they are ripe and handled well by the winemaker we tend to like tannins.

What do I mean by structure though? Think of a building. Acids are the struts, they go up and down building the foundation and height. Tannins are the levels and supports, they knit the wine together, allowing it to climb to greater heights. Without tannins, the wine can fall apart. Fruit is the decorative piece, without it we are just drinking chemical compounds.

And now, that question about types. What did I ever mean by types?

Well, you can have chewy tannins where you almost want to chew the wine; and rough boulder style tannins, usually in big reds made with little finesse. We can also have silky tannins, think a big but well made Barossa Shiraz. Lots of ripe fruit, and super smooth on the palate. There’s a tannin type, or profile, that complements a grape variety best. No one wants a big boulder tannin Pinot Noir, but they might enjoy a Primitivo with big grippy tannins. Likewise, a chewy Pinot Noir or even a chewy, tangy Chardonnay would go down a treat with some but will be too seen as too tart by others. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so tannin and wine are in the mouth of the drinker.

Still have questions? Then, simply ask our ever present friend Google, or find a book, or if you want to keep going down the rabbit hole with me, then why not ask me.

2 thoughts on “On tannins

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