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01 January 2006

Tannin Taxonomy

SandpaperYou'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.

Tannins 101

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.

Tannin Taxonomy
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.


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Given what the above says - can you get tannin free wines? I thought they existed but that doesn't seem right reading this?



Hi Jenny,
Many white wines are essentially tannin-free (at least free of the tannins that we are able to detect in the mouth & on the tongue). White wines that have been aged in 'new' wood barrels often contain some tannins from the barrel. However, your average/affordable white wine such as Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. isn't aged in these expensive barriques. If you wish to drink tannin-free white wine, avoid words on the label such as, 'barrique' 'oak barrels' etc.

Reatha Yrizarry

I've have been told it is the tannins in wine that are causing my extream head aches after drink even the smallest amount of wine.. do you have a common .. I know I am not the only person with this comment... is it the tannins or something else which I should avoid (such as a nitrate?)?


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