Once you immerse yourself in the world of wine you will hear many different buzz words, ways to describe wine, and wine terminology. One of the most common things discussed when wine tasting is the wine’s tannins. Tannins can impact the overall taste of the wine and shape its characteristics. Tannins are important when trying to understand the cosmetic makeup of the wine you are drinking. So what exactly are these mystical tannins?
What Are Tannins?
Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that are found in grape skins, grape seeds, and grape stems. When grapes are crushed and fermented these compounds (tannins) naturally make their way into the wine. Tannins are not only found in grapes, you can consume tannins by eating a variety of other foods such as: dark chocolate, nuts, teas, apples, cinnamon and a variety of seeds. The tannins are a natural preservative and give wines antioxidants. This is why you see recommendations for a glass of red wine a day as a way to keep your heart healthy. Antioxidants have a slew of health benefits.
How Can you Spot Tannins?
When you are drinking a particular wine and you taste a slight bitterness or experience a drying sensation in the front of you mouth, you are feeling the tannins of the wine. It is important to note; tannins are felt not tasted. The dryness of a wine directly correlates to its tannic makeup. Tannins cause your mouth to “pucker up” and are responsible for defining the texture and mouthfulness of the wine. Tannins are not to be confused with the acid of the wine. These are two completely different wine characteristics. The tannins will leave your mouth feeling dry after you swallow, on the other hand, the acid will cause your mouth to salivate. It is tricky to differentiate between the two, so play close attention to the feelings inside your mouth after you swallow the wine.
The longer the juice of the wine is exposed to the grapes, stems, and seeds the stronger the tannins will be in that particular wine. This is the reason that red wine has a higher tannin content than white wines. Red wines are exposed to the grapes skins much longer than a white wine, giving the tannins time to seep into the alcohol and water. White whites that are aged in oak can also carry a reasonable level of tannins. This is due to the fact that tannins are naturally occurring in oak.
Decoding Tannin Profiles
Tannins are described in many ways by the wine enthusiast. You have probably heard tannins described as round, chewy, sharp, chalky and so on. What makes the tannins different and how can you decipher what type of tannin you are feeling. A good rule of thumb is imagine how these tannins would feel on your fingertips, as if you were physically touching them with your hands and not just tasting them with your tongue. Here are a few of the more common comparisons and the reasonings behind the analogies:
Chalky - Imagine breaking chalk apart between your fingertips. What does that feel like? It isn’t refined like powder, its thicker and coarse. A chalky tannin carries more weight on your tongue and has a high mineral content not only texture but in taste.
Chewy - This term is used when your wine has a thick, almost fleshy texture. The wine feels so thick on your tongue you feel as if you might need to chew the wine. A chewy tannin is mostly noted in full bodied reds. A chewy wine is usually drying in nature, so much so that you feel you need to chew the remaining wine off your tongue and interior of your mouth. However, chewy tannins are usually a pleasant experience and a compliment to the wine.
Velvety - a velvety wine is exactly how it sounds, it coats your mouth with a silky, lush, rippling sensation. Its smooth yet notably thick. The thickness sits on your palate naturally and flows through your mouth like a chocolate river. Velvet is thicker than silk so occasionally you will see tannins described as one or the other.
Bitter - If you are unfortunate enough to stumble across these tannins you probably won’t be too impressed with the time. Bitter tannins are not pleasant and winemakers try to steer clear from harsh bitterness in their wines. Winemakers tend to be careful to extract the more pleasant flavorful tannins of the skins while avoiding the less desirable “green” tannins found in the seeds.
Round - This descriptor of tannins is used to describe a wine that is perfectly balanced. Meaning, the tannins blend completely with the other sweetness, body, and acidity of the wine. You will often times hear rounds tannins coupled with the term, “smooth”.
Wine with the highest Tannins
Different grape varietals will have stronger or weaker tannins. Each winemaker will have their own fermentation process further changing the level of tannins in the wine. There is a general rule of thumb when classifying which wines are heavier in tannic makeup but everything is subject to change!
Heavy tannic wines: Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Petit Verdot, Petite Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon
Lower tannic wines: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, Grenache