You've undoubtedly heard the word 'tannins' associated with wine. There are rich tannins, gripping tannins, bitter tannins and velvety tannins. But do you know what a tannin is? It's OK. You can still enjoy wine without scientific knowledge of tannins. However, a little tannin primer just might help you understand why your tongue felt as if it was wrapped in No. 2 grit sandpaper the last time you tried a ‘value-priced’ red wine.
From Mr. Wizard’s standpoint, tannins are a class of molecules that interact with proteins, and by so doing, increase their molecular size (there's an Enzyte joke in there somewhere..). A vivid example of this principle is likely wrapped around your waist, on your feet, or cradling your tush. A tanner uses tannins on deceased beasts’ hides to produce leather. Tannins bind to proteins in the hide to preserve, color, and strengthen the leather. So what does this have to do with wine? Read on tannin-grasshopper.
Tannins in Wine
Tannins are present in grape seeds, stems and skin. When grapes are pressed, tannins end up in the fermenting wine. Red wine contains a greater quantity of tannins than white wine due to extended skin contact during winemaking. However, it is not entirely uncommon, to discover tannins in white wine. Such tannins likely originate in brand-spanking-new wooden barrels used to ferment high dollar California, oak-aged Chardonnay. Tannins, treated the right way (although according to Jancis's Oxford Wine Companion, the exact mechanisms are still poorly understood), allow wine to age gracefully (think wine tanning). Winemakers have discovered that tannins prevent wine from oxidizing prematurely, maintain color in red wine and can even impart an additional sensory dimension in wine - a little something called mouthfeel.
Eureka! You’ve discovered the benefits of tannin in wine. Don’t stop now; do your best Carl Linnaeus impression (he is, after all, considered the father of scientific classification), and start classifying wine tannins:
Dusty - Borghese 2000 Meritage Red ($48)
Gripping - Bonny Doon ‘Heart of Darkness’ Madiran ‘02 ($16)
Mature & Round - Campo Ardosa Douro ’00 ($35)
Young & Slightly Astringent - Bruni ‘Marteto’ Morellino di Scansano ’03 ($15)
Silky - Ferenc Takler "Proprietors Reserve" Cabernet Franc, Szekszárd, Hungary '03 ($60)
Soft & Integrated - Passomagio Santa Anastasia '02 (~$20)
Believe it or not, there are more tannin types to discover. Just remember to feel your wine the next time you take a sip. Cheers.