Some of the most frequent queries I get from wine novices concern tannins. What are tannins? What do they taste like and why are they important in wines? In this week’s abbreviated column I’ll address these questions.
Tannins are a group of chemical compounds found in grapes and other plants. In wines, tannins affect the color, mouthfeel and aging ability of wines.
Tannins cause mouth-puckering, astringent sensations most notably on the sides of your mouth. These tactile sensations range from silky and velvety to highly-abrasive and unpleasantly chalky. While acidity in wine makes your mouth salivate, tannins promote feelings of dryness.
Well-known red varieties naturally high in tannins include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec and Nebbiolo. More obscure tannic varieties are Petit Verdot, Petit Sirah and Tannat.
While the wine world has long-held beliefs about the role of tannins in wines, in reality science is just now discovering the incredibly complex chemical reactions between tannins and other compounds in wine.
The goal of scientists and winemakers alike is to better understand the dynamics of tannins in wines and optimize their beneficial qualities. Though we still have much to learn about tannins in wines, here’s what we do know.
Various scientific studies have indicated that tannins benefit cardiovascular health.
One of the more interesting studies by the William Harvey Research Institute of the Queen Mary’s School of Medicine in London reported that the local populations in southwest France and on the island of Sardinia where wine rich in tannins is produced and consumed have better vascular health and greater longevity than populations in areas where wines lower in tannins are produced.
In our bodies tannins also act as antioxidants, another very good thing. Green tea is also high in tannins.
Tannins act as natural preservatives in wine, allowing them to age longer and more gracefully. Young astringent tannins gradually soften as wines are cellared, with some of the best red wines developing over many decades.
The preservation qualities of tannins also give the wine ample time to become more complex. The oldest wine I’ve experience was an 1899 Chateau Latour from my father’s cellar in Connecticut.
I tasted this piece of history about 20 years ago and the wine, while clearly past its structural prime, was still remarkably balanced, with a long complex finish. It helped that the 1899 vintage in Medoc produced very tannic wines.
Food lovers, in particular lovers of fatty foods and red meats, should also be fans of tannins. Tannins literally melt fats and make them more palatable and digestible.
The same is true of red meats. Conversely, fats and red meats counteract the astringency of tannins. In short, both the foods and wines taste better.
Three meaty Western dishes to pair with tannic wines are classic English-style roast beef, US Prime steak and duck leg confit. Richly flavored Shanghai-style meat dishes like red sauce pork and pork hock are also great with tannic red wines.
When tannic reds are the subject, I automatically think about the Bordeaux sub-appellation of Saint-Estephe. While not as renowned as some other Medoc sub-appellations, Saint-Estephe makes some of the most tannic and macho wines in Bordeaux.
A trio of personal favorites are the third growth Chateau Calon-Segur and two more affordable Cru Bourgeois wines, Chateau Meyney and Chateau Haut-Beausejour.
The Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cannubi DOCG and Pio Cesare Barolo Ornato DOCG are two terrific wines that wonderfully express the Nebbiolo grapes ability to merge solid tannins with great complexity and a velvety mouthfeel.
For something delightfully different, two 100-percent Petit Verdot wines with gorgeous soft tannins are the Finca Decero Mini Ediciones Petit Verdot from Mendoza, Argentina and Casa de La Ermita Petit Verdot Crianza from Jumilla, Spain.