Wine making is equal parts art and science, and as such is full of complicated terms and internal jargon that may be confusing to someone on the outside looking in. How each component, process, and concept effects the taste and texture of wine is not always clear, even to dedicated wine enthusiasts.
While some concepts like acidity are somewhat intuitive, ingredients like tannins play a less obvious role in wine. This lack of clarity raises a clear question for the wine enthusiast: how do tannins taste in wine? In short, tannins create a bitter flavor, a fuller body, and a drying after effect, all of which create a more complex and balanced flavor.
What are Tannins and Where do They Come From?
Tannins are a naturally occurring compound known as a polyphenol, and are found in the components of wine. Polyphenols are organic compounds composed of long chains of oxygen and hydrogen molecules. These compounds can also be found in other plant-based foods such as coffee, chocolate, and tea.
In wine making, tannins come from the polyphenols in the skin, seeds, and stems of wine grapes. These parts of grapes are often mixed in with grape juice during fermentation, leading to tannins entering wine as it is created. Tannins can also be found in oak wood, which is sometimes used to make aging barrels for wine.
This origin for tannins explains why red wines are often more tannic than other wines. This is because red wine is left to ferment with more grape skins, seeds, and stems, which help to create their signature red color. Non-red wines can contain tannins, however, if they are aged in oak barrels or if they are not filtered as much for solid grape remains.
The amount of tannins in a grape or in wood depend on a number of factors, such as the local climate, when they were harvested, and how the grapes were stored. Even the thickness of a grape’s skin, seeds, and stems can impact how much tannin it holds. This means it is hard to tell at first look how tannic a particular wine is without knowing where it came from.
As for where the word “tannin” itself comes from, it has its origins in the Latin word for tanners, or people who tanned animal hides. Tannin is found in the tree bark used to tan animal hides and was important to the overall process, so over the ages the compound itself was named after the job of tanning hides.
The nature and origin of tannins can help explain why they are more common in certain wines and what their effects are in wine.
What do Tannins Taste Like?
If a particular wine contains a large amount of tannins, it will have a distinct flavor. Tannic wine is more bitter and astringent than other flavors, with an almost acidic after taste. Most of the time, however, if a wine does contain tannin you will barely notice its presence, since tannins are important for balancing the qualities of wine.
There are many factors that go into how a wine tastes, such as sweetness, acidity, and fruit. Tannins help to balance these factors through their bitterness and astringency to create a more complex flavor for the wine. Wines short on tannin can feel overly sweet or cloying, making them less pleasant to the palate, while overly tannic wines can be bitter and stinging.
Besides their immediate taste, tannins have two other effects on the body and texture of wine. Tannins create a sense of weight and smoothness in the wine, giving it a fuller body and a more pleasant texture. Wines that are less tannic tend to be light, almost bubbly, while also sticking a bit in the mouth and throat
Tannic wine also has an interesting quality of drying out the mouth, although this is not the same as the quality of dryness in wine. Tannins dry the mouth out by turning saliva into proteins on the tongue, causing the mouth and especially the tongue to become dry. This drying effect is a telltale sign of highly tannic wine.
In short, the primary characteristics of tannins in wine are a bitter, astringent taste with a smooth, full body and a drying after effect on the tongue. All of these effects help to balance the qualities of wine to create a more complex product.
What Else Do Tannins Do in Wine?
Tannins do more in wine than simply reducing the sweetness and stickiness of the drink. First, they can be used as a metric for how well aged and well fermented a wine is, since the older tannins are the less powerful they become. So if a wine has only hints of bitterness and a mild drying effect, that means it was aged longer and in better conditions.
Research has shown that tannins may also have some health benefits as well, like most other polyphenol compounds in food. Polyphenols like tannins have natural antioxidant properties, which have been linked to a whole host of beneficial health effects.
Antioxidants can help prevent a wide variety of heart and blood conditions, reducing the risk of diabetes, heart disease, or stroke. Antioxidants have also been connected to a reduced risk of cancer and better digestive health. This is not to say that tannic wine is some kind of super food, but that tannins may have some health benefits for wine enthusiasts.
One common question about tannins is whether or not they are safe, since they are incorrectly linked to wine headaches. Tannins can cause headaches in some consumers, but only for people who are allergic to tannins. Only people with a tannin allergy or some other natural aversion are effected by tannins in this way.
Wine making is a complicated process, filled with concepts, terms, and processes that are not always clear to those outside the industry. A common question surrounding one of these components is: how do tannins taste in wine? Tannins in wine not only create a bitter, astringent taste, but a fuller body, and smoother texture, and a noticeable drying effect in the mouth.