What are tannins anyway…
We often hear wine people talk about “fine tannins” or “silky tannins” in wines…we read reviews describing a wine as being “well-structured with well-rounded tannins providing a solid backbone to fruit…”
So, what does this all mean? What are tannins anyway? Where do they come from?
Tannins are found in plants and are naturally occurring in nature.
Tannins come from four primary sources: the grape skins, pips (seeds) and stems, and the wood barrels used during aging.
Tannins are responsible for providing structure to wines. Tannins also help preserve wine and provide much of the weight to wines in our mouths in combination with fruit and alcohol, particularly in red wines.
Tannins belong to a chemical group called: Phenolic Components.
This group includes other famous actors such as, anthocyanins(the guys that give wine color) and resveratrol(most famous for being a super antioxidant) along with other compounds contributing to the smell and taste of wine.
In nature tannins have a pretty basic purpose-they are molecules developed by plants as a natural defense and preservative agent.
In wine-it’s pretty similar with some minor differences given the chemical transformation that takes place from grape juice to finished wine.
The difference between bottled grape juice and bottled wine has much to with the providing a delicate balance between-Tannin, acid, fruit and alcohol.
As I’ve mentioned to some of you before-both wine and cooking are very much a mix of skill, sensory awareness and chemistry. Often times combining equal and balanced parts of various elements to come up with a stable solution (in the case of wine) or flavor profiles and textures in the case of a dish and recipe.
So what do Tannins taste or feel like anyway?
Tannins in wine are often described as “structure” and part of the weight and mouthfeel for the wine. Tannins are often perceived as a sensation of dryness and bitterness.
The dryness is caused by tannin molecules binding with saliva molecules. I always like to use the example of leaving a bag of black or green tea in the cup too long as a parallel to perceiving tannin levels in a wine. Black tea happens to be one of the many foods high in tannins.
Below are some other high tannin food examples.
That dry mouth sensation you get from over-steeped tea is not too different from the one you would experience tasting a young Barolo or Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. For you science and wine geeks out, go here for a more in-depth explanation on this subject matter.
So while all red wines contain tannins in them, some are clearly more pronounced to our palate and a direct expression of the varietal itself. This is why a glass of California Pinot Noir is perceived very different in your palate in comparison to a glass of Barolo.
Among the less tannic varietals we find-Gamay, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Barbera, Grenache and Zinfandel. The last three in particular being wines which are much more expressive in fruit and alcohol than tannins.
Then we have Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo (the varietal behind Barolos and Barbarescos) as prime examples where the tannins take the lead in building the structure of these wines.
Now that we hopefully have a more clear understanding of what tannins are and how they show up in wine, let’s discuss how all of this affects your dining experience and pairing choices.
If you’re searing a prime piece of meat (prime being a classification given to beef based on marbling/the amount of fat throughout the cut of meat) and you’re searing it at 1500 degrees to sear in that fat, well, turns out you want a red wine with enough tannin and acid to balance the richness in your mouth when you take that first bite.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, most steak house wine lists are often times heavily populated with Cabernet Sauvignons, Bordeaux and northern Italian reds. Sure, these selections are on the upper end of premium wine pricing and make a nice addition to check averages and help boost sales. However, there is some food science behind it as well.
As we mentioned earlier, tannins like to bind to saliva in our mouth, essentially drying it out. Tannins turns out, also have an interesting dynamic with-fat.
Think of it this way, you have X amount of mouth-drying tannin found in a wine.
The astringency of that X amount is let’s say 10 when it comes to mouthfeel.
As you drink those tannins, they bind with saliva and now perhaps they’re at, 9.5.
Now, you take a bite of cheese, or a prime Ribeye steak, and that same X amount of tannins again binds to the lipids (fat) in the steak or cheese and now rather being at a 10 in your mouth, it’s more like a 8.
Each time they bind the sensation and intensity drop a little bit, essentially making a fairly aggressive and tannic wine at first, now taste much smoother.
There is a saying in Spain which best exemplifies this tannin/fat dynamic. “Que no me lo den con queso” roughly translated as “Don’t give it to me with cheese”
The saying originally applied to wine merchants trying to pass young, cheap, rough tannic wines as better wines by handing a piece of cheese along with the first glass!
To this day the phrase is used when buying something which may be passed as, well, perhaps better than it may be like a used car, or apartment in a less desirable part of town.
So, next time you’re out and get a bottle of red, take that first sip and start getting fruit, acid, alcohol and tannins…just remember to “have it without the cheese” first. Until next time.