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Wine tips - tannin: the structure and foundation of the great wines

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There are few things as important to a great red wine as tannin. It is tannin that makes a full-bodied red so full-bodied; it is well-balanced tannin that brings forth the flavor; and it is exceptional tannin that allows the highest-quality red and white wines to improve over long periods of time.

Tannin is introduced to wine from one of two main sources: the grapes themselves, or oak. Grape tannin is found in red wine – it comes from the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes. Grape tannin is generally a softer tannin than oak tannin, but a larger amount is generally given to red wines. It is this tannin that allows wines such as cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir to age and mature in bottle.

Oak tannin is found in both red and white wines which have been aged in oak barrels. Oak tannin is what gives certain great dry white wines – such as chardonnay – their aging potential.

 

In the mouth, tannins create an astringency and bitterness. They can be felt, even if they can’t be tasted, as a sort of coating on the tongue. Young wines with high levels of tannin may be overly bitter, or unpleasantly drying to the mouth.

Tannins are important because they have a tendency to link up with other things – most often proteins. It’s this characteristic that gives them their name – a range of tannins from plants were historically used to ‘tan’ leather. In the traditional model of wine aging, these tannins bind with other elements of the wine and fall out of solution, becoming a heavier sediment in the bottom of the bottle. This results in a mellowing of the tannins, a change in color (a lightening in red wines, a browning in white wines), and added complexity and nuance to the flavor and aromas of the wine. White and red wines both tend to lose some of their fruit-forwardness, gaining more subtle characteristics as they age.

Tannin is only one part of the equation – in order to age well a wine must have not only ample tannin, but also the correct balance of acid and fruit. Without enough acid, the wine will tend to fall apart over time, becoming limp and dull. Without enough fruit the wine will be softened to the point where it has very little flavor. With the correct balance, though, tannin can result in beautifully complex wines that age for decades, revealing more and more subtle flavors over time.

 

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