All you need to know about tannins in wine

Are wines becoming less tannic?

Is it just me or do you think that wines generally are becoming less tannic? I don't think my subconscious is pushing me away from more tannic wines when I taste and buy red wine. After all, in the right wine and when in balance with other elements of a wine, tannins are a good thing, providing character, structure, body and longevity (see my blog post that covers balance in wines). But when I taste (and spit out) wines in my search for those worthy of the Wines With Attitude list I have noticed that there seem to be fewer wines with tannins. I have been wondering why that is.

Firstly, how do you detect tannins and what are they?

How to spot tannins in wine

When taking my Diploma in Wine & Spirits I asked almost every lecturer and wine expert that came to talk to my class at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust how tannins can be detected and measured particularly as we were expected to describe tannins with words such as ripe, soft, green, stalky, chewy, coarse and fine-grained. The best technique came from Michelle Cherutti-Kowal, now a Master of Wine, and helped immeasurably in my general understanding of tannins and in those descriptions required for the blind wine tasting exams.

When you have wine in your mouth, keeping your mouth closed, carefully rub your tongue over your top front teeth. It is hard to describe but with a tannic wine you can feel a bit of roughness on the teeth. When you compare different wines you begin to be able to differentiate between coarse- and fine-grained tannins, wines with finer tannins feeling slightly smoother on the teeth that those with coarser tannins.

Tannins can also add a bitter taste as well as astringency, the latter detectable by a mouth-puckering dryness on the inside of your cheeks. But tannins needn't add these more negative properties if managed well by winemakers (see below).


Where tannins come from

Tannins are found in the stalks and leaves of the vine and in the pips of the grapes. Without being too technical, they are natural compounds that react with proteins to make unpleasant, bitter flavours, thought to be nature's way of deterring animals from nibbling on the plants. As the grapes develop and ripen the tannins soften and become less astringent. The best time to harvest black grapes isn't just about reaching the optimal level of sugar and acidity in the grapes but also about making sure the tannins are ripe and not too green.

Tannins also come in varying degrees depending on the grape variety. Grapes that are high in tannins (often thicker-skinned grapes) include Cabernet Sauvignon (think of those young Left Bank Bordeaux wines), Shiraz, Malbec and Pinotage. But bear in mind that not all wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon for example will display high levels of tannins because so much depends on the way the grapes have been handled in the vineyard and in the winery.

Grapes that are low in tannins include Pinot Noir and Gamay. As an aside, tannins are not a known allergen but I do recommend to anyone who says that they get headaches from red wine to avoid a tannic wine that has been aged in oak and to stick to the lower tannic grape varieties.

What may be less widely known is that wines may also acquire tannins if fermented and / or aged in oak barrels - the newer the barrel generally the more tannins are present. Research continues to be carried out into how the tannins change in the presence of oak but previous theories about how they are softened is currently being challenged. Ageing does seem to soften tannins however whether a wine is aged in barrel or in bottle.

Tannins in wine-making

Tannins change during the wine making process and during ageing but the chemical process is still not fully understood despite numerous research projects.

Aside from the ripeness of the tannins when the grapes are picked, the following can have a significant effect on the tannins in wine:

- how long the grape skins are in contact with the juice and whether the grape stalks are included

- how harshly the grapes are pressed

- the fermentation temperature as higher temperatures will generally extract more tannins

And so on...


Tannins - good or bad?

Whenever I read wine descriptions with the word tannins it is hard not to detect a note of negativity - even in writing this blog post I am consciously trying not to make tannins sound like a bad thing. And they are not. They are required, almost unavoidable, to help add character, body and texture in a red wine and vital for wines that are meant to be kept for several years before drinking. Plus they are an antioxidant.

Tannins are only really evil if they are handled badly.

 Flechas de los Andes Gran Malbec from Argentina tannins can be managed.jpg

Are wines becoming less tannic?

Like most things tannins move in and out of fashion and I think we are currently in a period where low tannic, smooth and easy-to-drink wines are the preference. Understandably winemakers are keen to follow that trend in order to sell their wines. But I also believe that the understanding of tannins by winemakers is improving constantly as more and more research is done into them and their effects on the taste and structure of wine. This means that the tannins in wine are generally being managed more effectively.

And finally...

Drinking tannic wines and food matching

Generally wines that are high in tannins will taste better when consumed with food.

Did you know that serving red wine at a cool temperature can make the tannins more obvious? You may want to make sure you serve wines high in tannins at room temperature. 

With food, tannins are known to help break down proteins in meat particularly red meat, one of the reasons red wine is usually suggested for drinking with red meat (although as regular followers of my blog will know matching your food and wine should first look at the weight of the food). But tannins do not go well with fattier cuts of meat like pork belly or a rib-eye steak.

And it would be better not to drink highly tannic wines with salty foods like roast ham. You can read more about this in my Food & Wine Matching guidelines.



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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.

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