We're here to teach you a lesson about tannins. That way when you swirl, smell, and sip your wine, you actually have a bit of knowledge to back up those fancy actions! Here's a quick rundown so you can taste-to-impress the next time you throw back a bottle or two.
Tannins are a main component of the structure of a wine, which is how a wine behaves in your mouth and in the glass (i.e. swirls, stains, and shows them "legs"). The ageability of wine also depends on tannins—the more tannins a wine has upon bottling, the longer shelf life it has. And then, of course, they contribute to both the taste and feel of a red wine. Tasting tannins is reminiscent of a pleasantly bitter dark chocolate or black coffee. On the tongue, tannins provide a drying and gripping effect. Some might describe tannins the way you would fabric (like silk or velvet), depending on how they perceive tannins on their tongue.
With all that out of the way, let's get in to the nitty-gritty of it.
What exactly are tannins?
Tannins are complex compounds that belong in the phenol family. Huh? Basically phenols are complex bonds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They're found in everything you'd associate with a hike—plants, bark, wood, leaves, seeds and fruit skins. Plants develop them for protection and preservation, thus aiding in the preservation of the wine in the bottle.
Where do tannins in wine come from?
In wine, tannins will come from a grape's skin, seeds, and the rarely used stems. Some grape varietals are naturally inclined to have more tannins than others. Red wines are fermented on their skins, which is why tannin is mostly associated with reds. White wines will have subtle tannin when aged in wooden barrels. Tannins from the wood can dissolve into the wine as it ages in barrels.
What do tannins taste like?
Have you ever steeped a tea bag for too long and felt like you could scrape the stuff right off your tongue? That's the same way tannins will feel on your tongue. When you taste a really tannic wine, the moisture on your tongue will be leached right off. Technically, that’s because the molecules in tannins are attracted to saliva proteins.
The taste is rather bitter, but a pleasing bitter, like when you eat dark chocolate, coffee or tea. Tannins are astringent, or puckering, which is also common in foods like cranberry, pomegranate, and grapes (...duh).
Are tannins good or bad for you?
Drink up! Wine is an antioxidant because of its polyphenols—reminder that tannins are part of the phenol fam! Some people assume they lead to hangovers, that the headache you experience after drinking a glass too many might be a result of tannins, but there's not a ton of research to back that up. (Nor is there much research about sulfites being the cause, either, which many people wrongfully say.) Those hangovers might be due to other chemicals in wine.
What are high tannin red wines?
Since tannin contributes to the structure and body of wine, higher tannin wines usually translate to fuller-bodied wines. Think: Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Petite Sirah, Merlot, Sangiovese. Beware! Your teeth and lips are going to be purple.
What are low tannin red wines?
If you’re a little weary of tannins, consider easing yourself in with a wine lower in tannins and lighter in body. Perhaps a Pinot Noir or Gamay.