You may not know what tannins are, but we’re willing to bet you’ve encountered them before. The plant-derived compound can be found in a variety of foods, including dark chocolate, walnuts and cranberries, and is known for its bitter, astringent taste. In wine, tannins add depth and sophistication, especially to age-worthy red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Read on to learn more about these mysterious compounds, plus which wines to taste or avoid depending on your tannin tolerance.
What are Tannins?
Tannins are biomolecules that are found in a variety of living matter, like leaves, legumes and fruits. The root of the word comes from the Latin tannum (oak bark), which, in the context of winemaking, evokes oak barrel fermentation. While aging in oak is one way tannins form, the main tannin-producing process is maceration. This is where the plant’s skin, seeds, and sometimes stems soak in the grape must (just-pressed grape juice). The longer the maceration, the higher the tannins, and the more intense a wine’s color.
What do They Taste Like?
Have you ever tasted overly-steeped black tea? That rough, mouth-drying sensation is caused by tannins. Foods like dark chocolate, rhubarb, cacao nibs, and some spices also have tannic properties. If the bitter, astringent taste isn’t for you, you’ll likely prefer white and rosé wines over reds, as these styles involve minimal skin contact.
What are the Benefits of Tannins?
Tannins impart bitterness and astringency, but they also add structure, complexity and other desired qualities to wine. In red wine, tannins are a crucial part of the aging process; they work as antioxidants to slow down the maturation of the wine and allow different tastes and textures to flourish. So while a highly-tannic wine might come across as astringent in its youth, these compounds will soften over time, lending silkiness and depth.
Ever wondered why red wine is the go-to pairing of fattier foods like steaks and heavy pastas? Tannins are made up of various phenolic compounds, which separate proteins, including those in human saliva. So a tannic red wine will naturally help cut the richness of the dish, creating balance on your palate. The magic works the other way, too: a high-fat meal will undermine the intensity of the tannins, rounding out the wine and mitigating the mouth-drying effect.
Which Wines Have Tannins?
Wines aged in oak are naturally higher in tannins, as are full-bodied reds made from thicker-skinned grapes. Here are the red grape varieties that are more tannic, and will also typically age better in the bottle:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
Are Tannins Bad for You?
Contrary to popular belief, tannins are not bad for you, nor is there any evidence proving they cause headaches (a common myth). As we mentioned earlier, tannins are actually antioxidants, those cancer-fighting compounds that produce free radicals and slow the aging process (in both wine and humans). So drink up—in moderation—for your health!
Now that you know more about tannins, why not get some Bordeaux to taste?