Just a few weeks ago, I was in Napa Valley taking clients on a one-week tour of some of the great vineyards with whom I work. Many topics often arise on these trips but one that is often brought up and that is least understood is the topic of “tannins.” Not only did we discuss it in-depth in Napa but when I returned I created a wine class around this topic.
"Tannin" is a word to which we refer, but realize it isn't often understood by many outside of the wine world. (Actually it is often misunderstood by many in the wine world too.) Tannins are naturally found in grape skins, stems and seeds. In wine, tannins are what often give you that drying and bitter zing effect in the back of the throat. (Like what you get when drinking black coffee or stewed tea.) Because red wine is a result of grape skins soaking with the juice, it typically has more tannins than white. (Remember we said tannins are in the skins.) Tannins are also in oak barrels and imparted when wine sits in them. Most of the time red wine sits in barrel and so tannins are imparted this way into the wine. Though some wines, typically more average-expensive Chardonnay will also sit in oak barrels. So why are tannins talked about so much?
Without becoming too technical, tannins are thought to be more noticeable/prominent in young wine and change as wine ages, thus becoming smoother. (The reason older wine is often described as less biting and soft after it is opened.) Tannins add to a wine's structure. Tannins are also known to link with other entities - protein and fats - and when brought together give a seamless, synergistic taste. This is the reason why we often suggest a tannic red wine, like Cabernet Sauvignon, to pair with a nice piece of filet mignon or leg of lamb. The tannins in the wine matched with the protein/fat in the meat give an almost creamy/buttery mouth feel.
Sound complicated? Well try this experiment that we did in class to see how tannins work with and against things, like fat. Take a un-oaked Chardonnay and a barrel-fermented Chardonnay. (The latter one will have tannins because of the oak barrels.) Taste each one and note the flavors and mouth presence. Then dip a piece of plain bread in olive oil and eat it with the un-oaked Chardonnay. Do the same with the barrel-fermented Chardonnay. You will easily notice that the olive oil-dipped bread with the un-oaked Chardonnay gives off an unpleasant and disconnected mouth feel, while the barrel-fermented one, tasted with the olive oil-dipped bread is seamless and gives a silky mouth feel. That's tannins...and fat. Try and let me know if you experience!