Tasting Vocabulary: Tannins
Copyright 2001 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed June 21, 2001. For more information go to www.wineloverspage.com.
You take a sip of a young Cabernet Sauvignon, and your mouth fills with a puckery, astringent feeling that reminds you of drinking strong black tea. You're sensing TANNIN, a wine characteristic that has no aroma and is really more a texture than a flavor.
It's worth getting to know a little about tannins, because they show up in some of the finest and most expensive wines, the ageworthy reds that reward careful storage in the cellar by mellowing into subtle complexity with age. (What goes on in there? Tannin molecules "polymerize" over time, joining their neighbors in longer chains that don't carry the same harsh and puckery texture.)
Tannins are found in nature in tree bark and in the stems, seeds and skins of some fruits; the skins of some wine grapes, especially thick-skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, are particularly rich in tannin. That's why those wines are characteristically astringent ... and ageworthy. Store the wine in new oak barrels and you'll add another dose of tannin from the wood. You won't usually find much tannin in white wines, on the other hand, because whites are made from grape juice without the skins.
To some degree, wine makers can control the amount of tannin in wine by adjusting such variables as fermentation temperature, how long the grape skins are left in contact with the fermenting juice, the kind of barrels that are used to hold the wine, and how long the wine stays in them.
Truly tannic wines aren't easy to like. In extreme examples, their astringency almost hurts your tongue, gums and cheeks. But when you're tasting an immature Bordeaux (or California or Australian Cabernet Sauvignon) or a big young Rhone wine or Northern Italian red, bear in mind that you're drinking a wine "before its time," as the old television commercial used to say. If you must, try aerating your youthful red by pouring the wine into a decanter with plenty of splashing, then allow it some "breathing" time before dinner. Then serve it with rare red meat, the best food match for softening the harsh edges of young and tannic wines.
But the best answer is to let the relatively rare ageworthy wines rest until they are mature, in the meantime enjoying the array of wines, from Beaujolais to Zinfandel, that with few exceptions are light on tannins and intended to be drunk young.