Tannins are responsible for red wine’s color and giving you that dry and puckering feeling in your mouth. We most notice tannins in red wine, though they do exist in whites, however imperceptible (orange or skin-contact wines, like those made by Josko Gravner, are higher in tannins. Some like the astringent feeling of tannins, some don’t, and still others take tannins on a case-by-case basis, depending on whether the tannins add or take away from the wine. Most novice wine drinkers tend not to prefer the feeling of tannins, but a red wine with the correct balance of tannins will spark your interest and leave you yearning for more.
Tannins are the “backbone” of a wine. Just as a spine in the body provides a framework for muscles and bones, tannins provide the wine with structure, balance, body, complexity and longevity. While also found in the stems, skins and seeds of the grape plant, the most important tannic compounds come from the skins. Because the tannins found in sites other than the skins are very harsh and bitter, winemakers minimize their presence during winemaking; the stems are removed before crushing and the grapes are pressed very slowly as to not break the seeds and release the bitter oils. Some winemakers, like those in the Rhone Valley for instance, use the stalk and stems in precise amounts to add tannin to their wines. Another, but less important, source of tannins come from the actual wood from the barrel where the wine was aged. Regardless of the source of the tannins, they are integral to good wine, and astute winemakers manipulate them to the wine’s best advantage.
The tannic backbone is the main reason why some wines will have a lifespan of two years and some for over twenty. Tannins are in a class of chemical compounds called polyphenols. At the heart of the molecule is a phenol molecule, which is a benzene ring with a hydroxyl group attached to it, and it is a highly reactive molecule. Bonds are constantly broken and created during a wine’s life, but no one really knows how tannins help a wine age. There is the notion that the smaller tannin molecules come together to make larger molecules, and they eventually fall out of solution to form the sediment sometimes seen in old wines. The exact opposite could also happen whereby the tannins get smaller. Regardless of how they do it, tannins make wine age better, and as a wine ages its tannins get softer, silkier and less perceptible. The wine’s tannic loss is our delicious gain.
Grape vines are wild plants with a myriad of biochemical, physical, and evolutionary processes that have helped them flourish. One of the main goals of the grape vine is to survive and reproduce. When the fruits of the vine are young they are green, acidic, bitter and very tannic. This insures that the berries make it to their full ripeness, changing to a beautiful color and becoming less tannic, sweeter, and less acidic. Now they are ready to be consumed by an array of different animals who eat, digest, and scatter the seeds all over the ground, ready for germination and growth into new vines. Tannins, therefore, play an evolutionary role in assuring that we have wine—as well as making the wine we have more enjoyable and age longer.
Tannins provide me with a level of enjoyment from red wines that I can’t get from white wines. Don’t get me wrong—I love white wines for their acid, but sometimes I just need that tannic red wine with a grilled steak. Tannic wines are great with grilled red meats, stews, braises, and older cheeses. The tannins provide a counterbalance to strong flavors of these dishes and help to prepare your mouth for the next round. The quality and balance of tannins can make all of the difference, but be careful because a wine that seems exceedingly tannic is also not good. As I’ve said in other posts, it is not the strength of one particular characteristic that makes a wine, but how all of these components mesh together.