Wine 101

9. Explaining Variations in Wine Tannins

As a dedicated student of Joe Raisin, you of course wrapped up my first article on tannins by rushing out to buy a few bottles to experiment with, right?

Nice work. Feeling all that knowledge of tannins sinking in now, huh? Did your experimentation lead you to notice some differences? I know it did – ’cause you guys rock. Now, let’s see how we can answer the question all this “experimentation” (which does sound fancier than “binge drinking”) likely brought up.

As stated above, this article assumes you already have some basic knowledge of what tannins are. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please read my introductory article on the subject before you move on to this one.

All done? Good.  Now since I’m getting to know you a fair bit, I know most of you came rushing here with the same lip-burning question:

Ok, but if all grapes have stems and seeds, and a big part of them spend some time in barrels, how can there be such a variation in tannins between wines?

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In fact – and this is the beauty of this wine thing, kids – the amount of tannins in a wine depends as much on the winemaking process as on the way in which the wine is tasted. Here are some key factors that can influence the quantity, quality or perceptability of these fun little things

1. The Grape Varietal

We saw that in cheat sheet I included in the last article. Logically, the higher the ratio of skin-to-juice, the greater the potential for tannins – since all really depends on what we do with the grapes afterwards. Still, it will be quite difficult to make a low-tannin wine from Nebbiolo, or a super tannic wine from Gamay … I suggest you consider the varietal as a basis from which we can work rather than an end in itself.

As Nebbiolo will hardly make wines with little tannins, Chris Farley will hardly ever be a cute ballerina. Better stick to what you know best, y’know?

2. The Duration of Wine-Skin Contact

This is often presented as THE crucial criterion. The more a winemaker will allow the pressed juice to macerate on its skins, the more tannins will be extracted into the wine – ending in a more tannic wine. Also, since red wines need longer skin contact to get its color, this also explains why red wines are always more tannic than whites. Makes sense? Cool, isn’t it?

3. The Type of Maturation Vessel

As we saw last time around, the majority of tannins come from the non-juicy parts of the grapes, including the skin, seeds and stems.

However, one can also “add” tannins to wine by aging it in wood barrels, especially new oak. The more we reuse the barrels (or the more we toast them), the less tannins they will extract into the wine. However, most growers do not like to add barrel-originating tannins, so most of the oak used comes toasted on an open flame to maximize the import of flavors they actually want (ie. vanilla, brioche, etc.) while reducing those they don’t (ie. woody tannins). This also happens with whisky, btw.

Here’s an impressive example of the human labor required to work a wine up to its top potential.

4. The Age of the Wine

First, the golden rule: the more a wine is aged in bottle, the softer the tannins tend to get (and therefore become less noticeable). You should however be careful in distinguishing the time the wine spends in barrels (in which it can develop ‘new” tannins) and time spent in bottles (which will soften them). We’ll talk about bottle aging soon enough, but know that all wines do not age well, and that much of the flavor of aged wines are greatly affected by the way it was actually kept (ie. in a 1M$ cellar or in a kitchen cupboard).

Photo credit: Sarah Stierch/Flickr

5. What You’re Eating

This is the purely subjective stuff. Indeed, not only are our palates unique and special little snowflakes, what we’re eating as we drink also strongly influences the perception we have of a wine, including its tannins. Generally, tannins love fat, so the fatter the food you’re eating, the more you’re likely to enjoy a tannic wine. You therefore have a great excuse to order a loaded bacon pizza the next time your boyfriend brings home a bottle of bold tannic red. You’re welcome!

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OK! You’ve made it through this second lesson on wine tannins! Now, treat yo’self and go buy yourself a bottle of Bordeaux and keep on with the tannin talk! All your questions and comments are also welcome in the section below. Cheers, guys.

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