A Beginners Guide to Wine Tasting: Tannins

June 17, 2019
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Even if you only have a passing appreciation of wine you’ve no doubt heard of tannins. Pretty much any description of wine characteristics, involves a mention of “tannins.” But what are these mysterious substances, how do they affect the taste of wine and where do they come from? Read on to find out.

What are tannins?

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Tannins are compounds called polyphenols that create a dry, grippy texture and a bitter, astringent flavor in wines. These compounds are naturally occurring and find their way into wines, more so in red wines than whites, through various methods. Tannins are an important part of a wines overall flavor profile and contribute greatly to the structure of the drink.

Where do tannins come from?

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Polyphenols are found in all forms of plant life including, you guessed it, grape plants. These chemicals are found in the wood, bark, leaves, and fruit skin of grape trees. Winery grapes are harvested with residual twigs and leaves, these are left to soak with the grape juice during and after the pressing process. As a result, the tannins seep into the grape juice. In red wine production, the grape skins are left in the juice for longer periods of time, for this reason, red wines tend to have a higher tannin content than white wines.

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Another source of tannins in wine is the oak barrels that are used in the ageing process. During this process, polyphenols found in the wooden slats seep into the wine. In recent years, wine producers have embraced wood chips and tannin powders as a low-cost method of adding tannins to wines.

So, are tannins good?

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Considering they are described as “bitter”, “dry”, and “grippy” one naturally assumes that drinking wines with tannins would be a wholly unpleasant experience. However, the taste and texture they provide are crucial to the overall quality and appreciation of wine. Tannins also play a large role in wine and food pairings. Wines with a large number of tannins can balance out fatty and rich meats for example. Furthermore, tannins are a natural antioxidant and protect the wines and allow them to age without spoiling.

High and low tannin wines

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If you’re a fan of tannins it’s best to steer clear of white wines. It’s incredibly rare to find white wines with any tannin content, although a few wines such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer can contain trace amounts.

Examples of high-tannin reds include Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Malbec.

If you prefer low-tannin wines look out for Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Barbera.

James Aitchison