The Uncorked Dork: A Tannin Tutorial
Good food calls for good wine. But good doesn’t have to be expensive or pretentious. That’s the philosophy of edible Tampa Bay’s very own wine expert, the Uncorked Dork, who serves up irreverent wine know-how for folks who like wine, but don’t want to be so serious about it.
There are things I have become sensitive to in my 15 years in the wine business. One of those things is when people make the Meritage brand into a French word (it’s “heritage” with an “m” … pronounce it like it looks; no need to get all fancy). But that’s not the point of this column.
Today, we focus on another pet peeve: “tasting” the tannins in wine.
First, what are tannins? In a nutshell, they are part of a band of hundreds of phenolic compounds that combine to make wine the liquid art that it is.
Generally, tannins come from what wine makers refer to as “time on skin,” or the amount of time that the crushed fruit of the grapes remains in contact with the skin of the grapes, which also gives wine its color. That being said, red wines will have more tannins than white.
However, tannins are also imparted from barrel aging, or from wine-making techniques that use wood chips or other organic or synthetic elements to create different layers of texture.
While it’s easy to say that you can taste the tannins, they are really about the tactile feel of wine – less about flavor, more about overall experience. A colleague who works as an enologist in Napa says it best: “Strong tannins are like knitting a sweater on your teeth.” They’re the element of wine that gives it the dryness that some people shy away from and others love.
On a side note, tannins will also act as dental disclosing tablets … you know those pills the dentist made you chew up when you were a kid to show where you missed with brushing to make you feel un-clean and like all your teeth were going to fall out? Well perhaps you heard stories. But truthfully, tannins tend to bind to food particles on your teeth, creating the red wine stain that can make your pearly whites not so white. So make sure you have a teeth-check partner at parties. But I digress.
Since tannins act as a natural preservative, a strong tannic feel or “backbone” is usually a good indicator of a wine’s longevity. Tannins will settle over time and soften the wine, not only in mouth feel but in color. In the meantime, protein can serve the same role, making a meal more in harmony with the wine, which is why red wine and steak go so well together. It’s also why many vintners will eat a small piece of cheese (not a cracker and cheese sandwich like many of us do during wine tastings, but a small nibble) between sips of wine to give them an idea of the future potential of the wine they’re trying.
Wine varietals that are higher in tannins – for example, Cabernet Sauvignon – are often blended with other lower tannic wines to “soften the mouth feel” and make the wine better stand on its own without food.
Long and short, you can feel tannins but you don’t really taste them. Tell all your friends.
Then go out, arm yourself with a toothbrush and drink some wine!