What Are Tannins?
Have you ever sipped a red wine only to have a puckering taste left in your mouth? We know the feeling.
That bitter and astringent texture you experience with a robust wine like Cabernet Sauvignon is due to tannins.
You might have heard “tannins” or “tannic wine” thrown around in the wine world, but what are tannins?
What Are Tannins in Wine?
The scientific definition of tannin is a polyphenolic (organic) compound found in plants, oak, and leather. Tannins are in the astringent class and include several other compounds like protein and amino acids.
You’ll discover tannic acid in just about all red wines and some white wines, although white wines usually contain lower tannin levels overall (more on that later).
Even if you’ve never sipped a red wine, you’ve likely experienced that tannic taste. The bitter taste of black tea and dark chocolate causes your mouth to feel dry.
The next time you have tea or chocolate, just know you’re also tasting tannins!
Now that we know what tannins are, let’s look at where they come from.
Where Do Tannins Come From?
After harvesting, the grape skins, seeds, and stems are left to soak in the must (winemaker’s term for “grape juice”) for a few hours or several months. This soaking process is known as “maceration.” The amount of tannins a wine will have depends on how long the grape skins are soaked. When soaked for more extended periods, the wine will have high tannins.
Red wines like Pinot Noir are light and smooth with minimal tannins, as this wine is usually macerated for no more than a week. Rosé is even less tannic as it’s only soaked for three hours tops! This leaves that fruity, floral taste behind.
When it’s time for fermentation, red wine is usually aged in oak barrels, which add even more tannins. The grapes' natural yeast converts sugars into alcohol, and tannins from the wood seep into the wine.
Tannins do more than make wine taste bitter. They contribute many vital aspects to the wine world. Let’s look at some of the prime functions of tannins.
What Do Tannins Do for Wine?
Tannins add texture and complexity to the wine, keeping it from tasting flat or dull. Without tannins, your favorite Malbec, Sangiovese, Syrah, or Merlot would taste like a watery mess. Tannins are also vital for aged wine as they help preserve it for decades. Powerful wines like Brunello di Montalcino taste better after years on the shelf as the harsh tannins break down, smoothing out over time.
Along with adding structure and intensity to wine, tannins also provide balance, ensuring the acidity and alcohol content are blended in perfect harmony. The best wine is a well-balanced wine.
Now that we know the function of tannins, here are several wines that have claimed bragging rights regarding higher tannins.
What Wines Have Higher Tannins?
A good rule of thumb to remember is that darker wines usually have more concentrated tannins. We’ve listed a few red wines that seem to boast the most tannins:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
Don’t think we’ve forgotten about white wine just yet. Let’s look at the tannin situation when it comes to white wine.
Which White Wines Have Tannins?
Red wine reigns supreme concerning tannins, as white wine contains less than a quarter of an average red wine's tannic content. Because white wines aren’t macerated in their grape skins and stems like red wines are, they show less grip on the palate. However, some full-bodied white wines like Chardonnay and Orange Wines will have a slightly more grippy, black tea-like mouthfeel.
We’ve discussed tannins, what they are, where they come from, and which wines have the most. But there’s one last thing to address, as highly tannic wine often proves tricky regarding food pairing.
Best Food Pairings for Tannic Wines
More often than not, tannins are better with food than alone. Due to their dry, astringent taste, high-tannin red wines respond well when paired with low-salt, high-fat dishes. Braised and barbecue meats taste superb with a slightly chilled Cabernet, as the tannins will cut through the fat while adding earthy flavors. Hearty cheeses, most items from a charcuterie board, and heavy pasta dishes doused in herbaceous tomato sauce are also great companions for tannic wine.
Don’t Shy Away from Tannins
Just because we often use words like “bitter” and “astringent” when describing tannins doesn’t mean they should be avoided. Tannins are incredibly beneficial to wine, adding textures and longevity to them.
Some of the most distinguished, sought-after wines are bursting with robust tannins. If you’re curious about decadent wines with savory tannins, see our selection of red wines.
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