What are Tannins?

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If you’ve ever taken a sip of wine and immediately felt dryness in the middle of your tongue, then you’ve had tannins. A naturally derived polyphenol from wood, bark, fruit skins, seeds, leaves, and plants, tannins create texture in wine in the form of dryness and bitterness. Tannins can also be found in chocolate, black tea, beer, apple juice, legumes, and unripe fruits. The name tannin itself is linked to the leather tanning process—since tannins from oak are used to tan leather and subsequently dry it out. However, in wine it’s a much more complex process that adds a whole new flavor and textural experience for those who drink it.

Why are there tannins in wine?

There are a number of reasons and three ways tannins find their way into the wine we drink: through the grape skins, seeds, and stems they are fermented with, the oak barrels some wines are aged in, and through tannin powders that are added manually to achieve a desired flavor.

For red wines, it’s important to let the wine macerate, or ferment, with the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes intact. It’s this process that is responsible for deepening the color, aroma, and flavor of red wines. To achieve this result, the maceration process in red wines is much longer than white wines—making red wines much higher in tannins than whites.

While white wines macerate for a much shorter time than reds, they can be aged in oak barrels—which contain tannins in the wood. This is a contact-based form of tannin absorption, meaning that over time as the wine ages, the tannins seep out of the wood and into the wine—enhancing the depth of flavor and creating a full bodied and balanced wine. Chardonnays are an example of an oak barrel aged white wine that contain tannins to create a drier and more complex flavor. Some red wines can also implement the use of oak barrels for aging to balance and deepen the tannic flavor even more.

This balance of flavor is something wine makers seek out and is also a reason why tannins are present in wine. By striking a fine balance between grape and wood tannins, the tannins break down over time and help “round out” the flavor of wine—creating a smoother feel on the tongue. Tannins also act as a natural preservative and help wine keep its integrity as it ages. While not all wines need tannins to age, red and white wines that do have a fine tannin balance give off a softer flavor with every passing year.

Some red wines that are high in tannins include:
  • Nebbiolo
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Tempranillo
  • Montepulciano
  • Petit Verdot
  • Petite Sirah
  • Bordeaux
  • Barolo
  • Burgundy
  • Malbec
Red wines that are low in tannins include:
  • Barbera
  • Zinfandel
  • Pinot Noir
  • Primitivo
  • Grenache
  • Merlot

What are the benefits of tannins?

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Tannins have been touted for their antimicrobial, antiviral, and antioxidant properties. When eaten in foods like kidney beans and chocolate, they can be beneficial. However, consuming tannins in wine doesn’t produce the same effect. Because tannins can become trapped in salivary proteins while drinking wine, their health benefits aren’t as impactful as when consumed in other foods.

What are the downsides of consuming tannins?

The jury is still out on whether ingesting tannins can cause migraines, but some people do report severe headaches after consuming tannins. If you notice a pattern of headaches when you eat foods and wines high in tannins, a tannin-free diet might be a smart choice for you.

How to taste for tannins

While tannins don’t have any flavor or smell, they can be tasted in the form of bitterness on the tongue and top of the mouth. It’s because of this bitterness that tannins can be difficult to decipher from acidity in wine. While both taste astringent, acid will make your mouth water while tannins will cause it to feel dry. The next time you’re tasting wine with friends, surprise them with your budding sommelier knowledge by distinguishing between the two.

What foods pair well with highly tannic wines?

Foods that are high in fat and rich in flavor like beef, duck, avocado, and cheese are a perfect complement to highly tannic or full bodied wines. It’s the mixing and matching of dryness and buttery textures that creates a complex experience for your palate. While the wine cuts through the fattiness and smoothness of richer foods, the rich and fatty food simultaneously mellows the dryness of the wine.