Welcome to another edition of Wine WTFs! In this series we’ll explore wine terms and ideas and try to figure out what the fuss is all about. Last time we talked about wtf the deal is with oak.
You know how it is. You’re over at a friend’s place or out for dinner and you’re sharing a bottle of wine. Things are great, conversation is flowing, and then you hear someone start talking about the wine.
“Ah, yes, the tannin in this wine is lovely.”
Oh yeah, totally, you think. You keep sipping.
… wait, what?
Seriously, wtf is the deal with tannin?
What is tannin?
Talking about what tannins are depends on how nerdy you want to get.
The nerdy answer? Tannins are chemistry! They’re astringent complex phenolic substances that show up during the winemaking process.
The lay-people’s answer? Tannins are astringent flavours that show up in some (but not all) wines.
Tannins don’t come from the juice of the grape. They come from the the skins, stems, and seeds and can also come from wood, like when a wine is aged in barrels. Tannins are super common in red wines because so many of their fermentations involve maceration – letting the skins and stems soak in the unfermented juice. Tannins in white wine are more rare and usually come from wood instead of skins and stems. Maceration isn’t common in white wine making.
Fun tip: orange wine is white wine that’s had maceration as part of its fermentation process. White wine grapes + maceration during fermentation = orange wine!
The taste of tannin
The best way to know you’re drinking a wine with tannin is to pay attention to how dry your mouth is.
When I say ‘dry’ here it’s different from when people talk about ‘dry’ wines. Usually when someone says a wine is dry they’re talking about the level of sweetness in a wine. The dryness I’m talking about here is more of an astringent quality. It’s that feeling you have when you take a sip of wine and feel like all the moisture in your mouth is gone. It’s similar to the aftertaste you get when drinking black tea.
One thing to keep in mind here is that tannin isn’t a flavour. It’s not part of the taste of a wine, but it’s the taste and the aroma that combine to become the wine’s flavour.
Why tannins are great and where to find them
Tannins are a pillar of the wine world because they’re one of the four keys to aging wine. Tannins contain antioxidants that protect the wine, and a protected wine has a great chance at standing the test of time.
Some wines are more tannic than others and some, like Carignan and mourvèdre, have so much tannin that they’re used almost exclusively in blending. Cabernet sauvignon, nebbiolo (aka Barolo), and tempranillo are all high tannin wines. Conveniently enough these wines are also some of the most popular wines to age.
How do you feel about tannins?