What are tannins? Are they a good thing? Bad thing? Do they really matter at all? Why does everyone always talk about them?
Let’s go through these questions one by one. First, tannins are relatively large compounds (compared to other compounds found in wine) floating around in wine. The amount of them, and the particular size of them, directly contributes to the texture of the wine. Tannins can give wine a velvety, soft and smooth texture. They can give it a subtle dustiness. And they can even be rough and grating at too high a concentration.
Tannins form in the skins, seeds and stems of grapes. They also form in similar parts of other plants. If you really want to understand exactly what tannins feel like at high concentrations, either make yourself a very strong cup of black tea, or get a hold of an under-ripe persimmon.
Because tannins come from, in part, the grape skins, red wines tend to have more tannins by default. This is due to allowing the skins to sit in contact with the wine during the maceration period, and often the fermentation as well. This does NOT mean, however, that ONLY red wines have tannins. White wines can have tannins if they also go through a period of skin contact. (spoiler: we have a bunch of wines like this in the shop, and they are awesome!). Additionally, oak barrels also impart tannins. White wine aged in them will therefore have some tannin as well - though, semi-paradoxically, white wine fermented in oak barrels will have fewer tannins, as some of the acid will bind with the oak tannins and fall out of solution.
Are they a good or a bad thing? Both, actually. A wine with too much tannin will come across as harsh and rough. A wine that could use some extra tannin, on the other hand, can feel weak and lacking. As with many things, the key is balance. Therefore, it’s better to think about tannins as playing a role, rather than qualifying them as a “good” or “bad.” As noted above, their role is to add structure and texture to wine.
Why do people talk about them so much? One reason is that some of the best wines in the world feature prominent, yet appropriate, tannic structure. Another is that they’re, frankly, kind of weird, and therefore difficult to figure out. The mystery of them makes them prime conversation fodder. Even the most seasoned wine drinkers stumble a bit when it comes to perceiving and describing tannin. And finally, they help keep wine fresh over long periods of time, which allows for the slow maturation process that leads to some of the most intriguing flavors and aromas great wine has to offer.
So what does this all mean for you? Hopefully, this blog helps you wrap your head around tannins. Don’t let them intimidate you, and don’t assume that you have to like them to like great wine. There are plenty of wines that are fairly low in tannin that are still exceptional. Also keep in mind that a wine that tastes too tannic at a young age may mature into a true beauty. A high tannin wine, such as certain types of Argentine Malbec, often need ten years for the tannins to settle down.