There’s no accessory I wear better than my pair of purple lips. You know the ones I’m talking about—the lips that barely hide the stained smile underneath. They’re a dead giveaway that I’ve been enjoying an intimate encounter with red wine, but that’s never a bad thing for me.
Others are eager to scrape their mouths clean of the evidence, though I don’t see why. Those stained lips are souvenirs of the tannins in sensational wines that should be worn with pride.
Chances are, you’ve already heard the talk about tannins. In the wine world, the word has gone viral and now appears almost everywhere—in wine reviews, on back labels, and as a part of tasting descriptions. Sometimes you see tannins identified as smooth and velvety, other times rich and lingering, or gripping and drying—but when it comes to wine what do those words all mean?
I wondered this very question the first time I heard the term tannins being used. It was at my first winery visit, where I tasted with a geeky wine couple and a friend, all far more advanced in wine than I. Tempranillo—a big Spanish red—was liberally poured and the tannins jargon shortly followed.
The gentleman across the table took a giant sip, swished it around in his mouth, and said, “I’m getting some dark fruit flavors and lovely drying tannins.”
“Yes, and the tannins are so mouth-watering and have great structure,” said his wife.
How could one thing be drying and mouth-watering all at once? I was completely confused and didn’t follow what any one was saying. But when I took a few sips of my own, it suddenly all made sense. Almost instantly, I was taken aback by the strange sensation coating my entire mouth. My lips were puckered, my tongue felt dry and I wanted more.
“So that’s what tannins are?” I asked, before reaching for another sip, and soon, I was hooked.
“It feels like licking stones,” my friend said with a smile. “But like, really, really pretty stones.” I couldn’t describe the mouthfeel of tannins any better.
A few months ago, I traveled to the famous Piedmont wine region in Italy, where tannins and I met once again. It was a quiet Sunday in the small wine town of Barolo, and there wasn’t much to do besides look out into the endless hills of vineyards or meander through a museum of corkscrews. So I did what any normal wine lover would do and spent my afternoon inside a tasting room.
It had been over a year since my first tasting experience, and this time I was more confident about wine. But when I took a generous sip of Barolo—a wine made from the nebbiolo grape that takes its name from a region near Alba, Italy of the same name—I felt as if I was losing my tannic virginity all over again. My mouth watered from the elegant and silky tannins, which were richer and more powerful than the ones in my tempranillo. Looking back on my notes now, I see how moved I was by the wine: “Oh, holy tannins! More, please.”
Barolo, often called “The King of Wines,” is easily one of the most tannic wines in existence. It’s also one of the most expensive, due to the many years of dedicated labor required in the wine cellar
“Oh, holy tannins! More, please.”
to age them. But younger, more affordable wines made from the same indigenous nebbiolo grape still express the same tannins that their older, bigger brother does.
If the world’s most sought-after wines—like Barolo, or Bordeaux or Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon—are so tightly tannic, then it should not be a surprise how much attention wine people lavish on the concept of tannins. They create that unusual, silky, desirable mouth-gripping feeling in red wines that people love. Yet when they hear it being used in wine talk, the relationship between the word and sensation gets lost.
There are plenty of scientific ways to explain tannins, though if you haven’t mastered an organic chemistry class before, understanding that they’re polyphenols or protein-binding compounds doesn’t really matter. Still, knowing even a little bit about the science and mechanics of tannins in wine can significantly add to your enjoyment of them.
So what exactly are tannins? Put simply, they’re chemical compounds found in the leaves, stems and fruits of plants that leave a bitter, off-putting taste in the mouths of predators. Luckily, we are not predators, and tannins in wine usually heighten our pleasure.
During the winemaking process, the tannins in the stems and skins of grapes, as well as from the wood of the oak barrel in which it is aged, infuse into the juice. The more time the skins spend in contact with the juices, the darker and more tannic the wine becomes. And grapes with thicker skins—like nebbiolo, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah—tend to produce bolder wines. Without any contact with grape skins, wine doesn’t get the chance to extract any tannins or color, so you rarely find tannic white wine.
While certainly pleasing to the taste buds, tannins play a larger role in enhancing wine. They provide it with structure, similar to the way a back brace or car frame helps support the entire body, which is essential to a wine as it ages.
Tannins provide wine with structure, similar to the way a back brace or car frame helps support the entire body, which is essential to a wine as it ages.
As years go by, those tiny tannins support the mysterious transformations happening to the wine inside the bottle. That’s why wines that begin as very tannic are better for long-term aging than those without them. Younger wines may be strong and bold, but after tannins spend many years reacting with the other fruit, acidity, and color components, they fade away and make room for a more elegant, structured, complex wine. If you’ve ever noticed sediment at the bottom of a bottle or wine glass, you’re seeing what tannins become in old age.
When it comes to actually describing the unusual sensations caused by tannins, it’s important to realize that you don’t taste them—you feel them. So the common adjectives used to portray aromas and flavors in wine aren’t as successful at conveying the mouth-gripping effects of tannins. That’s why you see so many words of texture being used to illustrate their mouthfeel.
Tannins wear a different outfit in every red wine. Some make your tongue feel like it just morphed into sandpaper. People call these types aggressive or rough. The sexier ones can feel as pleasant as caressing a bed made of silky, satin sheets. Tannins can also be luscious and velvety, like diving into a pile of the smooth, fuzzy fabric tongue-first. Other times they generate more friction and cause that drying sensation—like the ones in my tempranillo—leaving your lips puckered and mouth drooling for another sip.
What else are tannins good for? Everyone knows that red wine is good for your heart, and tannins are thought to prevent buildup in your arteries. And if you’re a lover of big, bold reds, like me, the telltale purple lips that tannins cause are the best badge of honor to display.
I’ve selected a few good-valued wines below that display the diversity of sensations that tannins can cause. Each serves as a great introduction to the world of tannic wines for the beginner wine drinker.
Colchagua Valley, Chile, 14.0% ABV, $9.99
Earthy aromas with hints of green pepper on the nose. Drying tannins are evident as they settle on your tongue and teeth, but aren’t completely overwhelming. An easy introduction to the world of tannins.
Piedmont, Italy, 13.5% ABV, $15.99
Ripe cherries and dried herbs on the nose. Great juiciness and refined tannins settle on the middle of your tongue and feel like licking a swatch of velvet. A savory finish and fuzzy teeth remains.
Mendoza, Argentina, 14.0% ABV $14.99
This is what big tannins are all about. Fresh plums and chocolate aromas with sweet baking spices flavors are framed by drying tannins, which take over your mouth and leave you smacking your tongue for more.
Illustration by Claire Jelly