What Does Tannin Mean in Wine Tasting?
Tannins are unique molecules in nature. They're all around us, even in plants. Tannins are also present in some fruits, such as red grapes, which means they end up in wine. Tannins play a critical role in wine tasting, as they’re one of the most significant characteristics of red wine.
Tannins are phenolic biomolecules with a unique property: they bind to proteins. This property gave tannins their name. They’re used to tan animal hides to create leather. This tanning effect is also why red wine pairs well with proteins, like juicy stakes—but more about that in a minute. Let's talk about what tannins are, how to identify them, and why they matter.
What Are Tannins?
Sometimes called tannic acid or tannoids, tannins are not human-caused; they exist in tree bark, leaves, roots, veggies, and fruits. Red wine often contains tannins, but so do tea, chocolate, and many other foods, including rhubarb and apples. It’s believed that plants developed tannins through the ages to prevent animals from eating them. After all, tannins taste astringent and cause a drying effect on the tongue and palate.
Tannins exist in wine because they exist in grapes, specifically in grape skins. Although even white grapes contain some tannins, red grapes are much more tannic. The tannins are assimilated into the liquid during the maceration and fermentation steps of the winemaking process. Interestingly, grape skins aren’t the only source of tannins in wine. All plant matter that comes in contact with the wine contributes some tannins, including the stems of the grape clusters and the oak barrels used to age the wine.
How Do Tannins Affect the Taste of Wine?
When tasting wine, tannins are easy to identify on the palate, as they bind with the proteins in our saliva, tongue, palate, gums, and cheeks, causing a drying sensation. Unlike acidity, which we get used to after a couple of sips, tannins build up in your mouth. As a result, tannins are astringent from the first glass to the last drop.
Tannins give structure and body to the wine, which is why tannic wines are robust. They also protect the wine from oxidation, as they’re natural antioxidants. Wines meant to age for a long time are usually tannic. Of course, this means wines destined to be cellared for years and even decades are often too tannic to be enjoyed during their first few years. The good news? Tannins precipitate over time, making the wine more palatable as it creates sediments.
The Tannin Content of Different Wines
Red wine contains more tannins than white wine because white grape skins contain fewer tannins. However, there are exceptions. White wine aged in oak barrels gains tannins from the barrels themselves. Orange wine—which is white wine macerated for long periods—also accumulates noticeable tannins from the grape skins.
Not all red wines are equally tannic. Some grapes—like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carménère, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Nebbiolo—are famous for their tannic intensity. On the other side of the spectrum, some red grapes are often subtly tannic, like Pinot Noir and Gamay.
Pairing Foods With Tannins
- Tannic wines aren’t necessarily better than low-tannic wines. They simply serve different purposes and are compatible with different types of meals. Tannic wines are the ideal partner for high-protein foods, mainly red meat.
- Tannins not only bind with proteins but also with fat. Marbled steaks require more tannins than lean cuts of meat. A typical example would be pairing a ribeye with Cabernet Sauvignon and a filet mignon with a medium-tannic Merlot. All rich and fatty foods benefit from the tannins found in wine.
- Wines with low tannins, like some Pinots, can also be paired with red meat. However, they're more compatible with tender stewed beef, like Beef bourguignon, which doesn't require tannins to mellow.
- For some people, tannic wines are incompatible with fish because they might cause a metallic flavor on the palate as the tannins react with the fish oils.
Upgrade Your Glassware Game
Tannins are natural, and they're naturally pleasing; they also protect wine and help it age well. However, tannins can be overwhelming for inexperienced wine drinkers. After all, there's nothing natural about the drying sensation they cause in your mouth. Learning to enjoy tannins is part of your wine adventure, so it’s best to embrace them.
Whether you prefer red or white, wine is best enjoyed in the right glassware. Our Grassl collection features traditionally mouth-blown glasses made with the highest quality materials available. If you want to get the most enjoyment out of your next bottle, grab a few glasses to get started.