This one stopped me in my tracks for about a week and I’m not sure why. I think I may have over-complicated it a bit in my mind. Wine writers refer often to the word tannin when describing a wine, especially reds. What does this word mean and what are we trying to convey to our readers. There have been numerous articles written on the subject of tannins, some are easy to understand and some harder. I will do my best to make the term tannin as easy to understand as possible.
Tannin: Many times in my tasting notes, I will use the word “grip” to refer to the tannins in a wine. Since tannins are tactile rather than a flavor, we need to assess them as feeling we get in our mouth when we are drinking a wine, and not a taste. Sometimes I am approached by someone who will refer to tannins as bitter. Bitterness is a flavor, but many times tannins are perceived as bitter. Some teas have a lot of tannin and leave an astringent feeling in the mouth that may be considered bitter by some or as I like to say, it feels grippy in the mouth (I know it’s not a real word, but I like it).
I believe that the “grip” feeling or roughness in the mouth that tannins cause is a better way to understand the term. Many wines produced today are made to tone down the harshness that tannins can give a wine. As a result, you will see terms like “polished tannins” or “silky tannins”, which refer to wines where the feeling that tannins can give in the mouth are not perceived as harsh. There was a time where wine makers were not as concerned about harsh tannins in a wine (think back to some of those Napa cabs in the ’70’s & ’80’s!), because most wine buyers were looking to lay their purchases down for a few years expecting the tannins to soften. Tannins in a wine, along with acidity and solid fruit are key to the ability of a wine to improve with age.
There are actually two types of tannins that can affect a wine, grape tannins and wood tannins. Grape tannins come from the skins, stems and seeds. Have you ever chewed on the skin of the grape? How did it effect your mouth? A seed or piece of stem will have the same effect. Red wines have more tannins because the juice is allowed to have contact with the stems, skins and seeds longer then a white wine (many whites have no extended contact at all). It is logical to conclude, that since the stems of a grape have tannins, the wood from barrels will contribute tannin to the wines as well.
There is no way that I’m going to get into a dissertation on the difference of tannins from the grape and tannins from the wood in this article (maybe another day). All you really need to understand is that tannins are essential in a wine if you are inclined to age them. Tannins are a feeling in the mouth, and not a flavor. Tannins do not have to be harsh to be present. If a wine is well made, the tannins will integrate or meld nicely with the fruit and acid in the wine. A wine with tannins will be solid, structured and in no way flabby. I love a wine with a little “grip” or rough edge to it on the mid-palate or finish… It doesn’t have to be off-putting, but present ( I’m a little weird that way). Wines with enough tannins will age a lot longer then a wine that has no detectable wood or grape tannins.
The next time you read tannins in a descriptor of a wine, I hope this definition gives a little clarity to the term. Tannins are a complex subject, and volumes have been written about them and their effect on wine. I encourage you to read a couple of articles if you feel so inclined, it will be helpful. In the meantime, if you are enjoying a glass of wine (note enjoying) and you get a touch of grip (astringent, friction), or what you might perceive as bitterness, you are probably feeling tannins in your mouth.
Cheers! Stan The Wine Man.