get a grip (a breakdown on tannin)
Generally, around this point of the year, my day job gets loaded with talking shop. There are many wine makers in town, ready to tell tales of their toils, looking to get their creations cellared in all the best places, before the seasons of holidays arrive. I find myself spending whole days in succession talking only with the professionals. It can get technical pretty fast. Somms do love to “own” information (just in case they are stopped and quizzed on the streets) so we cover some serious industry minutia. Much of it though is not what the common sipper wants to hear. Don’t get me wrong, a good bit of it is great material, which helps shape reasoning for certain sensations and confirms many assumptions Somms make as they taste through the days. But much of it can be filed away as real geek stuff. When the day ends, sipping a glass for relaxation, I discover that I cannot stop analyzing. My somm-voice keeps yammering on. It is then when I know I need to get a grip. Just enjoy the stuff. Wine is only a beverage. It does not always have to be judged.
So it is in this vein that I would like to approach the page today. I want to discuss “getting a grip” (pun intended), the concept of Tannin in wine. Lets see if I can veer away from the rules and common technical stuff. Rather, I’d like to paint the atmosphere in which it exists and how it can be found. Perhaps there will be something recognizable in the tidbits that will echo in a glass you’re tasting now or have had recently. The beauty of this topic is, once you identify it, tannin and its range of severity is unforgettable. And the good news, it is something you have encountered all your eating life. You have experienced the sensation before but maybe without knowing what to label it as…
So first, what is it? Tannins are things, or better said, a collection of organic, amino-acid compounds that bind proteins. They are derived from woody things (more to come on this…). They are astringent. It is this effect, the marks left in a tannic wake, as a textural element in wine, that I want to get at, because your tongue and gums, being protein, can feel tannin without searching.
If I said the words: Constriction. Pucker. Tightening. Narrowing. Grip. Shrivel. Shrink. Does this generate a response? Think of the last time you had a walnut, dry, skin on. Or eaten a super green pear. Drank brewed tea with the tea bag left too long. Chewed on a young, flexible stick, still green under the thin bark. Popped less than perfectly ripe grape in your mouth, maybe crunching through the brittle seeds. Even enjoyed a super-hopped up beer. You can almost twist your face in contortions from the memory. Ok, now think about the last time you tried a red wine that left your mouth dry, crunchy feeling, with your gums sticking to your teeth. This is the amazing effect of tannin. Nice, huh?
So then why? Well, we have to first take tannin as a by-product. As mentioned, it comes from woody things, from various sources. It can be naturally extracted from the oak barrels that a wine may rest in or pass through. Undoubtedly, it comes from the wood around the grapes: the stems, seeds, and to a true extent, the skin wrapping the grape itself. It is a preservative, a natural survival tool of the plant has to protect against the environment. Therefore, the wood and leaves have a high concentration. As the juice or wine comes into contact with any of this, it is bound to incorporate these compounds into the volume of liquid.
Both vehicles for delivering tannin can be avoided. The riper the grapes, the better off we are, as tannins are fierce when the wood is green. The astringency can be shocking. Making certain the stems and seeds are mature (meaning brown) which happens only when the grapes are truly ripe, offers some reprieve. The greener the wood results in more aggressive astringency. Otherwise, the first thought is to de-stem the berries. Less wood to deal with from the start. Beyond that, gentle and fast pressing of the grapes can minimize the contact, thus less tannins. Opting to keep wine in neutral vessels, like steel or concrete or even old leeched barrels, then reduces any further intrusion. Man, I am getting technical.
The benefits though can force the wine maker to consider including one of the above steps. From your drinking experience to the longevity in the cellar, tannin plays a powerful role. Wine is essentially juice. Think of juice for a moment. It can be sweet, maybe a bit sour. But for the most part it can slide down the gullet pretty simply. Generally, the fuller and riper the juice, the more slippery it can seem. Slick is the opposite of what we have mentioned thus far, right? An easy wine is low in (not necessarily void of) tannin. So, the basic setup, take what naturally exists and use it beneficially. A little grip can hold the wine, the flavor (that same sweet and sour play on to your palate) for a longer extent. It cradles it. Anchors it. Digs in so you cannot swallow all of the wine. This gives your mouth some time to consider all it has to give. See it as the anchor of the juicy-flavorful stuff, literally binding the flavor compounds to your taste sensors.
Tannin, keep in mind, leaves a bitterness in the finale of the wine. That can be an arresting taste sensation, leaving a cottony-dry, almost scratchy feeling. Some fat to grease it up helps, thus the relationship of tannin and food. A very tannic wine can reveal some tremendously deep flavors, if paired with rich, buttery or fatty food. In combination in your mouth, it works both ways. The food softens the wine, giving your palate room to explore more of the wine. And the wine combats the density of the cuisine, making it less slick and dull. That bitterness of the first sip without food is almost forgotten. You may feel some friction, but hopefully now in a positive way.
A common word associated with the balancing capabilities of tannin is structure. Along with the acid in the wine, it is the framework, the skeleton, the artistic construction that sets the stage for the fruit to shine. On the heavy side, it can label a wine square, backwards, firm, rigid, hard, masculine, upright, etc., all fancy wine lingo for its powerful effects. Without some degree of tannin, you may find yourself with a lazy and dull wine.
I like the example of a good fudge brownie. Easy enough to imagine the chewy, profound decadence of sugar and cocoa. Only a few bites however, can be enough to have you reaching for a flavor break. The palate is overwhelmed…So, add walnuts to the brownie. Now you understand tannin. It adds a crunchy, balancing element of resistance to the saturation, bringing a nutty flavor along with its inherent grip. The combo is classic! Ask yourself, if you like brownies at all, exactly how you like them, nutty or nut-free, and it may help align your preferences for tannin presence in wine.
We can go into the cellaring benefits of tannin as a preservative, but perhaps we save this for the more technical conversation of another post. For now, I encourage you to explore this sensation. It is fun to see what it does to your palate. You will feel this for sure and feeling (as I repeat as a mantra) is what sets wines apart more than their flavors. If you can get a handle on the grip that feels appropriate for the occasion, you’ll enjoy the good juice all the more.
In the meantime, I will dig up some other aspect of the array system and get uber-geeky, all-technical-like and hone it down for us all. Please feel free to tell me when I go to far, tell me to get a grip. I will not let it all slip away though, I promise. I hope this info sticks to you as well and welcomingly as a good dash of tannin.