Tannins in wine get a bad rap. They are blamed for headaches and a world of other sins, but they play a vital role in the development and longevity of red wines.
The Oxford Companion to Wines describes tannins as a group of chemicals that naturally occur in the bark of many trees and in fruits including wine grapes, but in reality they are not so easily explained.
Southerners likely have more unique firsthand opportunities to experience tannins because of our love of sweet tea and muscadines (but not necessarily those two things together).
If plopping a ripe muscadine in its entirety into one’s mouth and chewing until all that remains is the tough skin and seeds, one quickly notices the residue becomes rather unpleasant and bitter. This is because of tannins on the grape skins and seeds.
Likewise, if one is tasting a glass of steeped Tetley tea before the addition of copious amounts of sugar, strong brewed tea is bitterly tannic. One statistic estimates that 50 percent of the chemical makeup of a tea leaf is tannin.
Just as the Southern tea-maker has to be careful about how long tea leaves steep before sugar is added, so must the winemaker take care to avoid making overtly tannic wines that fail to mellow out during their lifespan.
Tannins are found primarily in the skins of grapes and, to a lesser extent, in the seeds and stems. Tannin can also be imparted to wine from oak barrels.
White wine can be made from red grapes. All juice from wine grapes is clear. For instance, a blanc de noir Champagne is a clear white wine made from red grapes; the clear juice is drained off before the red skins can impart color. A red wine is red because its pressed juice is left to macerate with red grape skins, which imparts color as well as tannins.
White wines are not devoid of tannins. Some are aged in oak barrels and contain tannins, but white wine grapes are not generally left to macerate on grape skins for extended periods of time. As a result, they do not have the longevity of red wines because they are lower in tannins.
Tannins cannot be detected by smelling a wine. They are detected by the sensation one gets when tasting a red wine that makes one’s mouth pucker like one has just eaten a green plum, drying out the mouth leaving a bitter, astringent aftertaste.
If the puckering sensation goes away and mellows out in a red wine, the wine is said to have “nicely integrated tannins,” but if an opened wine remains overtly tannic then the tannins are said to be “rough” and “not integrated.”
How is tannic unpleasantness to be avoided? One could avoid drinking red wine totally, but for me that would bring no joy. My special wine moments, those where I know I am in the presence of greatness, have always come from red wines.
One could avoid drinking wines known to be high in tannins, but I would have to avoid my favorite, cabernet sauvignon. However this sacrifice could be partially mitigated by drinking pinot noir, merlot and zinfandel, all known to be lower in tannins.
One could drink red wines purposefully made to be ready-to-drink upon release, like a Silver Oak cabernet that spends two years in oak barrels and almost two more years in bottle before it is released, but such a practice can be expensive.
If you find yourself consuming a bottle of red that makes your cheeks fold inward over your tongue, pour the wine into glasses and allow it to aerate for an hour.
If the wine remains bitter and tart, try it with a bite of creamy cheese. Cheese has been known to tame the most rustic tannic wines.
If cheese doesn’t help, pour out the wine but keep the cheese.
Pat Kettles writes about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.