Good Question: What is Tannin?
Posted: Sunday, June 1, 2014
Found in fruits, nuts, some herbs and spices (cloves, tarragon, cumin, thyme, vanilla and cinnamon all contain tannins), nuts, chocolate and beans, tannin is an astringent, bitter plant compound that causes a dried-out, puckery feeling in the mouth. Many of us specifically associate tannin with wine, and for good reason.
In order to protect grapes from being eaten before they are ripe and ready, nature protects immature grapes with a potent combination of high acidity and aggressive tannins. When ripe, the fruit changes to a more attractive color, its acidity diminishes, sugar increases and those harsh tannins soften.
Not only is tannin naturally present in grape skins, seeds and stems, it's also found in oak wood used during the aging of wine; a bottle of wine may even pick up tannin from its cork. Red wines, which are produced in a process that generally allows more contact with grape skins, have markedly more pronounced tannins than whites. (Very generally speaking, red wines are defined largely by the effect of tannin in the wine, while whites are characterized by their acidity.) The way a wine is made has a lot to do with the tannin level in the wine. Expert winemakers know how to control for the effect of tannin to achieve their flavor goals.
Tannin is an excellent antioxidant and serves as a natural preservative. But because we describe them as drying, bitter and harsh, you might not think that tannin is an important flavor element in good wine, but it is. Tannins provide dimension, structure and texture. But as with any good taste experience, it is important that tannin is balanced by other flavor sensations, such as sweetness and acidity. When describing the tannin experience of a wine, depending on the perceived amount and nature of its tannin, you might define wine as astringent/dry, firm or soft.
How can you know if you are experiencing tannin in wine? To orient yourself to the sensation of tannin in your mouth, rub a cotton swab on your tongue. When drinking wine, that cottonmouth feeling will be felt mostly on the back of the palate. With particularly tannic wines, you'll also sense this on the inside of your cheeks and on your gums. By contrast, an acidic wine will make you salivate.
The best way to become familiar with tannin is to experience a variety of wines, so drink up and have fun! Talk to our wine experts about what you like and what you're looking for in a wine – they are happy to steer you to your perfect bottle!
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Tannin can also be detected visually. It forms part of the natural sediment found in the bottom of a bottle.