It is usually when the word “tannin” is pronounced that 90% of people drop out of a conversation about wine.
It gives a bougi impression, it sounds snooty, and – above all – we have no f*cking idea what it could possibly mean. But say we were adventurous enough to give half a sh* learning what it means, where would that lead us? Let’s take a look on the wild side.
First things first: tannins have – contrary to popular belief – a lot more to do with the grape itself than the wood in which wine is aged, and this despite the tannic-woody combination we often hear. In fact, most of a wine’s tannins come from the skins, stems and seeds of grapes, and thus mix with the juice when the grapes are pressed (though the stems and seeds are often taken out. Good riddance, guys) to force out the juice which will later become the life of the party. Barrel aging in (new) oak can then add another layer of tannins, though many winemakers try to minimize this second tannic import. Ok, but now that we know where they come from, why should we care? Glad you asked, my friend.
1. The “Taste” of Tannins
We will focus on taste rather than on chemicals, because between you and me, that’s the only relevant way of knowing what tannins actually are. For instance, no one really gives a f*ck that tannins are a class of polyphenols, most often water-soluble, with the ability to precipitate proteins and polysaccharide alkaloids from their aqueous solution… Right? Thought so, Well, now that I have pissed off my scientific readership (say hello to Paul, people!), let’s move on to what tannins actually taste like in your glass.
First, you should know this is a little tricky, because the “dry” vibe of a wine may be explained as much by tannins as by low residual sugar – and often both. Indeed, tannins have the main property of causing one’s mouth to dry up (we especially feel it in the cusp of our cheeks) while leaving a sorta harsh or rough feeling on the wine’s finish. Not too sure you’re following? That’s fine. Go make some dark ass tea, like English Breakfast (or Assam Mangalam Ultra-Fancy Reserve if you’re from Park Slopes – no judgment).
Let the tea infuse for 5-10 minutes before you take a large sip. Pretty bitter and harsh, huh? Well here’s a rather extreme taste of what tannins feel like (yup, dark teas also have ’em). Now the next time you drink red wine, ask yourself whether this reminds you of that High Tea experience you just had with Sir Raisin and you should end up “getting it” after the first 2-3 glasses.
Ok, you might still be lacking a little in the swag dep’, but this is a learning process after all.
2. Cheat Sheet By Wine Type
OK, say you understand the basic idea but wanna try different types of wine to get an idea of the possible variations – you might be wondering where to start, right? Luckily, your favorite antisomm got you covered once again with this fine little cheat sheet showcasing the standard tannic profiles of different wines/varietals on a tannic/non-tannic continuum of sorts. You’ll understand this is another of my filthy overgeneralization, but I never shy away from being a little vulgar in my vulgarization. Also, I bet this will still be of much help in having you try different things while giving you an idea of what to expect in each of ’em.
Usually Very Tannic Wines/Varietals:
- Barolo / Nebbiolo
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Petite Syrah
Usually Not So Tannic Wines/Varietals:
- Pinot Noir
Now that you know your tannins a little better, try to talk the talk about them in the next wine you’re drinking along with some friends. Do more than note whether you can feel them or not – try to describe them. Are they soft, round, superseded, violent, harsh, raspy? Try harder, drink better! Do it, brah!