So, this one comes from our customer Bill Carroll:
“I’d love a better understanding of tannins and how they effect (sic) the overall taste and enjoyment of certain wines.”
Away we go!
Wine Term: Tannin
Variations: Grip, Grippy, Grab
Alternate Usages: Unfiltered, sediment, solids
What it really means: The way the wine adheres your tongue to the top of your mouth
Anyone who has ever drank iced tea has experienced that moment where your tongue and the roof of your mouth grab each other and hold on for a moment. Those are the tannins in tea that are grabbing. Small particles of the leaves that have broken off and not only colored, but flavored your tea as well. An iced tea without tannin is about as good as a glass of cold water. Some teas like white tea have delicate tannins, some medium tannin like green tea, others, like black tea, have much firmer or grippy tannins. The longer your tea steeps, the more tannin and color/flavor is extracted. The same goes for wines.
In the case of some wines, like those of Burgundy for example, winemakers will not only use the grape skins, but seeds and stems as well (known as whole cluster fermentation). Extra tannin and flavor compounds will come out with this process, and based on the winemaker, is desirable or not to their finished product. There are all sorts of levels to this, for example, a winemaker can choose to do 30% whole cluster if they find that is the perfect balance of tannin and flavor additions beyond the grape’s natural abilities at harvest.
Unfiltered wines generally have more tannin, and older, aged wines generally have their tannins adhered to other solids over time, creating a chunky sediment in the bottom (or side – depending on storage conditions) of the bottle that while isn’t amazing to drink, won’t hurt you, and is actually the sign of a well aged wine, meant for aging.
While some white wines have a tannic structure, it is rare. Tannin is generally reserved for describing your experience with red wines exclusively, as that is what makes the wine red colored.
General rule of thumb: the bolder the wine’s flavor, inherently the more tannin involved in the wine. Or an easy way to think of it, the darker the color, the more tannin in the wine.
How to effectively use it:
You never want to say, wow, this wine is chunky, that you really enjoy the debris in the wine, or that the wine is gritty. It’s always appropriate to say you notice the tannin in the wine.
Are they soft, firm, small, or large? Any combination of the aforementioned? Go ahead and say it, tell the winemaker you enjoy the soft, firm tannins, or the large tannic structure. As an at home experiment, have a sip of Pinot Noir, then a sip of Cab. Which was more grippy? 9.9 times out of 10, it’ll be the Cab. It has a thicker skin, usually sits with the skins for longer, but the Pinot isn’t without tannin. Which was soft, firm, small, or large? Now you’re beginning to define tannin for yourself.
As it goes in the wine world, fluff is the stuff of high regards and recognitions, not only by way of what is in the glass, but who is consuming it. It is completely ok and sometimes in your best interest to add good sounding, unnecessary words, see below:
Probably correct, but a bad idea: “This wine is gritty.”
Better approach: “The wine has noticeable tannin.”
Best approach (fluff it up): “Your Cabernet has well integrated, small but firm tannin that alludes to a great ageability, I’d love to try it again in a decade or so after it has rested in my cellar.”
Yeah, you probably don’t have a cellar as most don’t. Hell, you might not let the bottles you plan on buying see the end of the next week if the wine is that good. But you sure as hell got another taste of that wine on the house when you get to “revisit anything you were on the fence about” – and that’s winning in the tasting room!