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Tannins - Explained

Opening the bottle early ‘to let the tannins breathe’ is probably one of the most satirized elements of wine tasting. But fun as it is to make fun, tannins are a fundamental component of flavor, body and mouthfeel, and wine simply wouldn’t be the same without it.

A little knowledge of tannins’ role in your wineglass goes a long way. A good idea of what you’re sipping lets you appreciate the wine in a whole new way, picking out subtle nuances and the play of different components into unified harmony. It can help you discover new wines suited to your particular palate, choose the right bottle for the occasion, and make the subtle decisions about aeration and serving temperature that bring the best out of what your bottle has to offer.

So without further ado, here are tannins - explained.

So… what are tannins?

Let’s get the science out of the way so we can focus on the fun stuff.

Tannins are a type of a naturally occuring chemical compound called “polyphenols”, and are responsible for that dry mouthfeel you often get from red wine.

This sensation results from the interaction of tannins and the proteins in your saliva that cause lubrication. Tannins bond with proteins and inhibit their function, so they almost literally are pulling moisture from your tongue.

Tannins are introduced into wine during maceration, the period where the skins and seeds of crushed grapes are left to infuse with the juice (a.k.a. grape must). The longer this contact, the more tannins, color pigments, and other polyphenols will seep into the wine. The oak barrels used to mature wines before bottling can also impart tannins into the wine.

In white wines, the skins and seeds are separated from the juice quickly after crushing, and so tannins are often less perceptible. Reds are macerated for a lot longer, about a week for fresh and fruity wines, and up to three weeks for bolder, high-tannin reds destined for cellaring.

Fun fact: Different grapes have different levels of tannin. Pinot Noir for instance, king of Burgundy red, has thin skins which typically results in lighter and more elegant tannins. If producers want to punch up the tannins, they use a technique called ‘whole cluster fermentation’, adding tannin-rich grape stems to the maceration process.

Tannins and wine

Tannins play two roles in the taste of a wine. 

The first relates to flavor. Tannins introduce a subtle bitterness to the wine, which helps balance against other flavor elements like sweetness, fruitiness and acidity.

The second is more about texture. With their dry astringent mouthfeel, tannins bring structure to wine, giving it shape and body and weight. Alcohol level and acidity have a role to play here too, and when these elements are in proper harmony the wine comes alive against your taste buds; a sense of brightness, balance and grip that really distinguishes great wines from mediocre.

Over time, tannins naturally undergo a process called ‘polymerization’, linking together into longer and longer molecule chains. Eventually, these chains become so large they precipitate into solids and sink to the bottom as sediment. But even before they precipitate, polymerized tannins don’t bind to proteins as effectively, and this results in a much softer, silkier mouthfeel.

This is why winemakers need to ensure that wines destined for aging start with lots of tannins; to ensure that some are left over after aging. It’s also why wines meant to be consumed young have a much shorter maceration period. Since young tannins don’t have time to polymerize, winemakers introduce fewer into the wine to prevent them from overpowering the other flavors.

Tannins polymerize more quickly in the presence of oxygen, so it does in fact help to let your red wines ‘breathe’ a bit before drinking. By opening a bottle an hour or two before serving, swirling your glass or pouring your wine into a decanter, tannins soften up a bit, generally resulting in a more balanced red.

Wine, tannins and food

This one’s easy to remember. Wines rich in tannins tend to pair well with rich foods, especially protein-rich foods. This gives you the best of both worlds. Not only does the taste of a robust red balance beautifully against the heaviness, but the protein-binding effect of the tannins literally cleanses your palate, a pleasing sensation that refreshes your taste buds for the next bite.

If you’re not sure where to start, Pinot Noir is almost always a solid bet. Occupying the mid-range in terms of tannins, it serves as the perfect accompaniment to any meal, from roast vegetables to a grilled ribeye. If you want to punch up the tannins, try a Burgundy or other Pinot Noir vinified using whole clusters during fermentation, which allows the little grape to punch above its weight class.

Wrapping up

Knowledge is the step between enjoyment and appreciation, so hopefully this bit of background information brings new pleasure to your wine drinking. Once you know the role of tannins and what to look for, you’ll never look back.

Try it out yourself! The next time you open a bottle of red, give it a taste right away. Then, pour it into a decanter and let it aerate for 30 minutes and see if you notice a difference. Of course, if you can’t wait that long, a 30 second swirl of your glass might just do the trick too.

Happy tasting!

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