What is a Tannin? A Guide to Tannins in Wine

What are tannins in wine?

To anyone who has listened to a Sommelier wax on about a wine that they love, the term tannins might be easy to recall hearing. Almost as if pulled from an imaginary dictionary for wine nerds…listed right next to terroir and just down the way from typicity… the descriptor is often thrown around casually in conversations about wine. But it’s a mystery to many as to what wine tannins actually are. But never fear, your Cellar Angels are here to shed some light.

Monroy Wines Cabernet Sauvignon pouring in a wine glass

Tannins Sound Awful…

To start with, tannins could use a better publicist. When you google the term tannin in wine on its own, they sound utterly unpleasant! And they’re meant to be. Tannins are bitter and astringent compounds that are present in fruits and plants as an evolutionary foil of sorts. Their sharp, chalky taste is meant to deter animals from eating a plant’s fruit or seeds before they’ve had a chance to mature. As the fruit ripens and becomes sweeter, the fruit’s tannins diminish, but they don’t disappear. Tannins are vitally important for aging red wines. More tannins allow the wine to age gracefully, protecting the fruit flavors as the tannins soften over time.

Yet Tannins are Surprisingly Wonderful

Everything that you love to eat or drink that has a bitterness to it, can likely attribute that flavor experience to tannins. Think: coffee, tea, and chocolate…and of course wine.

What Do Tannins Taste Like?

When we think of the chalky, dry taste of a tannin, we think of eating a single red grape. You know that dusty taste that remains on your tongue when all the fruit has been swallowed and you’re only chewing on the skin? Those are the tannins! And that same dry, tart flavor can be detected in a glass of wine.

Tannins in wine come from three sources: the grape’s skins, seeds, and stems. White wines rarely have much in the way of tannins because they’re made only from the juice of the grape. (That dry, chalky grape skin is removed from the fruit before white wine is left to ferment.) Conversely, red wines have greater tannic qualities because the whole fruit, the seeds, and the stems, are put into the barrel and allowed to age together. The dryer the mouthfeel in a glass of red wine, the more tannins developed during fermentation.  

How to Talk About Tannins

Nearly every glass of red wine has some tannic quality. Think about the texture that your tongue is experiencing to describe the tannins you taste. If they’re fairly unobtrusive, you might describe the wine as soft or silky. If the tannins are more aggressive – leaving your mouth dry and gritty – you could describe the wine as angular or if you want to be bold: searing. But at their best, tannins leave a little tingle on your tongue after the fruit finishes… often described as grip; alluding to the sensation that you experience when tannins are present and pleasant, but not punishing.

Man holding a bunch of grapes in a vineyard

Which Wines Have the Most Tannin?

Classic high tannic wines include Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Merlot, and Sangiovese, among many. They’re all made from grapes that have more substantial skins, which boost their tannic qualities. Conversely, Pinot Noir is an example of a red wine with low tannin because the skins are so thin.

But it’s not just the grape to consider when you’re looking for a big tannin experience. Also consider the location. Warm climates allow grapes to ripen and become sweeter…reducing the tannins in the grape. A Syrah that’s made in a cooler climate will ripen the skins more slowly, and develop more acidity than a Syrah that’s raised somewhere warm. That warm-weather Syrah will ripen skins quickly, develop higher sugar levels and end up with a softer with much less tannic structure. 

Pairing Tannic Wines with Food: Steak and Red Wine

Now…for the news you really need. What to eat with a wine that’s heavy with tannins!?

The reason why red meat and red wine is such a classic pairing is because…you guessed it! Tannins are tart and dry. Red meat is rich and fatty. It’s the culinary version of yin and yang; playing off one another and complementing one another perfectly. If you chose to eat a steak with a glass of water, your tongue would never get a rest from the salt and fat. A sip of an acidic red wine, however, cuts through that fatty mouthfeel and balances it––getting you ready for your next bite. We highly recommend a tannic red wine with your next serving of red meat.

our favorite tannic wines

What is tannin used for?

In our video with Vigneron George Noble of Noble Wines – one of our favorite Cabernet Sauvignon producers in Napa Valley – we discuss how tannin plays a role in ageing wine, and share tips for decanting red wines.

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