What the Heck are Tannins Anyway?

What the Heck are Tannins Anyway?

When you read tasting notes about a red wine, the subject of tannins always comes up.  There’s a good reason for this, and a good reason why everyone who enjoys and appreciates wine should know something about this important component.

First of all, tannin is not a flavor – it’s what’s called a “mouthfeel.”  And just like it sounds, it’s the sensation you have of the wine on your palate.  If you read enough wine reviews (mine or anyone else’s) you encounter descriptions of wine that is silky, or round, or jammy, or velvety or rustic.  That’s mouthfeel.

Tannin, or tannic acid, shows up in a lot of our foods and drinks.  Make a cup of strong tea and taste it plain.  That dry “grabby” feeling is tannin.  Or eat a few walnuts.  They are loaded with tannin, and also give you a dry feeling on the palate. 

In wine, tannin is a major component of the grape skins, seeds, and stems that hold the clusters together.  If you find some seeded grapes, bite into a few of the seeds for a good example of the feeling tannins impart.

In white wine, the major structural element is acid.  In reds, it’s tannin.  It’s kind of like the central “spine” that all the other flavors and characteristics hang on.  The amount of tannin in a wine depends on basically two factors:  the grape varietal, because some grapes (like Cabernet Sauvignon) have more natural tannin than others (like Merlot), and the winemaking style.  As you might expect, the longer the juice stays on the skins, the more flavors – and tannins – are extracted into the final product.

Tannins break down over time and slowly integrate with the other flavor and structural components of the wine.  This is why we often lay bottles down for a year (or five or ten or twenty) to allow the process to take place.  However, the vast majority of wines (including ours) are made for immediate consumption and enjoyment.  While the reds can certainly last for a few years, and perhaps mature a bit, there’s no reason not to enjoy them soon after they’re released.

Another puzzling (and often misunderstood) part of wine appreciation is what most people call “legs” or “tears.”  These are the little rivulets that run down the inside of the glass after you swirl the wine.  Many people mistakenly believe that a lot of legs means a higher quality wine.  This belief is so widespread that some winemakers have been known to add glycerin to their wines so they’ll have more of them.

Sorry…it just ain’t so.  Legs do not indicate quality.  They are a result of the difference in evaporation rate between the water in the wine and the alcohol.  The more alcohol, the more legs.  Glad we cleared that up.

So…if you have any questions about Direct Cellars wines, or wine in general, please email me at winewhisperer@directcellars.com.  I’m always happy to help.  Here’s to you!

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