We’re back for our second week of the wine structure series! What did you think about acidity? This week we’re switching gears to discuss tannin. This is an important compound in red wine, so if you’re white wine only, bear with us. We’ll get back to your structural features next week. For you red wine drinkers, let’s talk tannins!

What’s a tannin?

So what exactly are tannins? Tannins are the compounds in red wine that make your mouth feel dry and can give wine a slightly bitter taste. They come primarily from grape skins, which is why they’re only important to red wine, but they also exist in grape seeds and stems. Tannins are not just found in wine- they’re also in tea, coffee, chocolate, strawberries, and other fruits, vegetables, seeds, and herbs. They’re also found in wood, so wine aged in wood barrels can actually get some tannin from the wood, although not a ton.

Tannins are often made out to be the bad guys when people get headaches after drinking wine. The studies conducted so far have not been fully conclusive (and, of course, you should always take your doctor’s advice), but it’s a good rule of thumb that tannins are not the culprit if you can eat chocolate and drink coffee or tea without a headache.

What does tannin do to wine?

Different wines are predisposed to different levels of tannin. Tannat, a popular grape from Uruguay, has some of the highest levels of tannin in the world, followed closely by the rare Sagrantino. On the other end of the spectrum are Gamay and Pinot Noir.

The sun is also vital in the development of tannin. A hot, sunny growing season will result in lower tannin because the grapes don’t have time to fully ripen and develop the tannin. The winemaker inspects and tastes the grapes while they’re still on the vine to see how well the tannins are ripening. A fully ripe tannin will only give a slight drying sensation but will give the wine a good sense of structure. An unripe tannin has significant, harsh dryness that causes a puckering sensation.

Tannin is very important to wine’s structure and its ageability. They increase the body of a wine, making it seem fuller, and act as a preservative so wines can age. As wines age, the tannins soften, so higher tannin wines can typically be aged longer than lower tannin ones.

To determine how much tannin there is in your wine, consider how much of a drying sensation a wine causes. Also consider how much bitterness you notice in the back of your mouth. This isn’t full-proof because different people perceive tannins differently, but it’s a good start.

If you find that you’re sensitive to tannin, or just really want to up the wow factor of a meal, pair a high tanning wine with a fatty, rich meal. The tannin will essentially scrape the fat from your tongue, drawing out the flavor of both the food and the wine. A really good red wine and steak pairing is a great way to wow your taste buds!

We’ll see you next week when we cover sugar levels in wine. It’ll be a “sweet” event!