“Wow, that’s just a little tooooo dry for me,” I said, recoiling from the bitter, astringent jolt of a young Cabernet Sauvignon. That unpleasant experience, as I later learned, had nothing to do with “dry,” which is winespeak for “not sweet.” It was related to something quite different. That harsh, mouth-puckering feeling was caused by a crucial component in red wines known as “tannins.” That wine was “tannic,” not “dry.”
In my pursuit of the grape, I easily grasped the notions of “body style” and “acidity.” Things, however, were more challenging for “tannins,” a word that was foreign to me. I found out, though, that I already had experienced tannins. In a strong brew of tea, dark chocolate, a misdirected bite into banana peel and my first and last taste of persimmon. Those palate shocks made my mouth feel as if it had no moisture. No wonder (I thought) that Cabernet was “tooooo dry.”
Tannins, however, have a crucial role in wine. They are to red wines what acidity is to whites. That is, they supply texture, structure and balance. While acidity is known as the “nervous system” of white wines, tannins can be called the “backbone” of reds. It allows them to age and develop flavor and aroma nuances far beyond the primary “berry” and “plummy” descriptors. And just as there are wine enthusiasts who are “acidity freaks,” there are those who like the distinct, “textural grip” and finish derived from “well integrated tannins.”
Why mainly red wines? The source of tannins is primarily from grape skins as well as oak barrels used during the aging process. Tannin levels are also directly related to the type of grape, the duration of skin contact during fermentation, and the age of the wine. Pinot Noir grapes, for example, yield lower tannins while Cabernet Sauvignons generally impart a more aggressive style. A very short soak on Zinfandel skins will produce that forward, fruit laden White Zinfandel, while a longer infusion will yield the more traditional, muscular Red Zinfandel. And if you store it for several years, those tannins will fall away and you will perceive a wine with a distinctly different taste and bouquet.
Without sufficient tannins, reds taste flabby and lifeless; with too much, they’re sharp and bitter; when balanced, they are “silky.” And just as acidity tolerance levels vary with each person’s palate, so does one’s reaction differ with various tannin levels. Lastly, much like acidity in white wines, tannins in reds refresh the palate between bites of that grilled steak, and thereby, in the context of accompanying food, genuinely fulfills its intended function.