Where do tannins come from?
By: George Balling
Tannins do many things for wine, they provide the structure that allows the layering of flavors, they give the wine longevity or its ability to age, and they preserve the wine to name just a few. The easiest question to answer is actually where they come from which is from just two sources. They are extracted from the grape skins and seeds during fermentation and they can come from the oak barrels wine is aged in, if oak barrels are used at all. The more appropriate and full name is tannic acid but these naturally occurring elements are more commonly referred to as just tannins.
Every wine consumer will perceive and react to tannins differently, like most everything with wine we all like something different including the structure derived from tannins. As Mary says if we all liked the same thing, we would only need one wine. If you are newer to wine, you may be trying to figure out how to tell what tannins are. They can be described a couple of different ways. If you have ever had a glass of wine that gives you a dry grippy feeling in the back of your throat that comes from tannin. Others of us will get a drying sensation on the sides of our mouth and across the palate from tannin. For some the wine will even taste bitter if it is a more heavily tannined wine.
We have found over the years that most of us are more sensitive to tannins early in our wine consuming years when they will cause more of a reaction most times negative. If you do or don’t like tannins and it is rarely an all or nothing situation here are some wines, and wine types to seek out or avoid.
White wine is always less tannic than red wine. Since white wine is rarely fermented with skin or seed contact one of the primary sources of tannin, the wines are naturally lower in tannic acid. There are also many white wines that are fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks, concrete vessels or any number of non-oak containers. A non-oak aged white wine will therefore be the least tannined wine, you can have.
With the primary source of tannins being the grape skins if you are trying to avoid tannins you should choose thinner skinned varietals. Gamay or Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, Grenache and Sangiovese are the thinnest-skinned varietals and therefore will deliver the lightest tannin load to the wine even if the wine has extended exposure to the skins during fermentations. Conversely, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petite Verdot and Nebbiolo are some of the thickest-skinned varietals, so these wines will most times be the most tannic. In the middle of the tannin spectrum are Merlot, Mourvèdre, Barbera and a handful of other grapes. With any of the thicker skinned and more medium skinned grapes the finished product wine can vary quite a lot with respect to the tannin level based on winemaking. The longer the fermenting wine is left in contact with the skins and the more frequently the skins and seeds are punched down through the fermenting juice the more tannin is extracted from the skins and the more tannic the wine becomes.
Outside of these broad generalizations of what is likely to be in any bottle of wine there are two solutions to finding a wine that has appropriate tannin for you. First, take every opportunity to attend wine tastings. Whether you are at a winery or at a tasting at a shop like The Dinner Party you will have the opportunity to try the wine and find the wines that are right for you.
The second way to solve the tannin puzzle is to work with a wine professional you know and trust, and one that knows your tastes. In shops like ours we taste every wine before we decide to carry it on our shelves or have it in our wine club. Based on your preferences we are able to recommend wines that will best suite your tastes including the tannin level you are looking for and enjoy the most. With all of our customers our point-of-sale system tracks every bottle you buy so we can go to that history of what you have purchased and liked and either go to the same bottle that was a perfect fit for you or to find similar wines that you will enjoy but still broaden your choices.
Stop by the shop with your specific questions about tannin levels in what we carry and we will do our best to find the ideal bottle for you.