Tannins: Intense, Bitter, and Yes, Juicy
Lesson One: Tannins – As a person passionate about any subject, I have studied tons of material, purchased countless books, and been educated by some of the best people in the business. Every definition is slightly different, as any author would want it to be, so I have tried to incorporate some of the best definitions (and some long, monotonous ones too) into a mildly full definition. Yes, “full” means long… but it’s, in my opinion thorough, and hopefully enjoyable. And so, let us begin:
Tannin: Think of a natural pond in the late Autumn or early Spring. Notice all the leaves accumulated in the bottom of the pond, and the water appears somewhat brown. Mmmm… yummy. The water has evolved into a tannic acid solution – water, which is slightly acidic, draws the essence of the leaves into its own substance. By definition “a tannin (… a type of bimolecule…) is an astringent, bitter plant polyphenolic compound that binds to and precipitates proteins and various other organic compounds including amino acids and alkaloids.” (Tannin, Wikipedia, accessed 4/8/2012) When applied to wine, which is naturally much more acidic than water, tannin profiles result from grape juices extracting the essence of the grape skins, stems, and seeds; also from the wooden barrel as the wine matures. This is how red wine is made: grape juice is naturally white, no matter what grape color. Think about it: when you bite into a red grape you purchased at the grocery store, what color is the inside? White… well it’s kind of grey/green… but for all intensive purposes, it’s white. Therefore, in order to produce red wine, the juice must rest with its skins (primarily), extracting the tart, sometimes bitter flavors, and yes, its color in the process - tannins. This is the wine equivalent of tannic acid, and the reason red wine has its color, intensity, and in young red wines, a “puckering” sensation. Tannin is also present in tea, beer, herbs, and even on the surface of wood-smoked meats.
|Tannic acid present in a natural wetland setting.|
While this next excerpt is lengthy, I think it is extremely valuable: “The quality and quantity of tannins in red wine vary. Quantity depends partly on the grape: thicker-skinned varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah contain more of these preservatives, and thus have a greater capacity for aging. The vintage (a dry summer produces thicker skins and correspondingly more tannins) and the work of the winemaker also play a role, however, because low yields, long skin-contact times and barrel-aging enable larger amounts of the compounds to be extracted. At least as important for the development of a wine’s flavor is the quality of the tannins. Only tannins that were fully ripe when the grapes were harvested will integrate harmoniously into the overall taste of a wine after years in the bottle.” (Wine, Andre Domine, 2008)
In order to age wine, one of three factors must be present in the wine: tannin, acid, or sugar. As this is a story on tannins, we will come to acid and sugar later. “Full-flavored wines with high levels of tannin, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, are usually meant to be aged. As they get older, the tannins drop out of the wine as sediment, making the wine seem much smoother and mellower with age.” (The Sommelier’s Guide to Wine, Brian Smith, 2003) As red wines age, and become more full, lush, and palatable, the tannin literally breaks down, and becomes oversaturated within its container, and can be seen as sediment in the bottom of the bottle (or ideally on the side of the bottle, because properly stored wine should rest on its side). This is why older wines should especially be handled with care; I recommend giving each aging bottle in your cellar a quarter turn each month to avoid sediment accumulating along the side of the bottle. No wine should be “shaken,” but you can’t avoid movement when pulling a bottle from the cellar up to your dining room. After you have made your way upstairs, it is best to allow the bottle to rest a moment before opening and decanting. In a nutshell, decanting performs two processes: it allows maximum exposure to oxygen in order to break wine down even faster, “speeding up” the aging process and providing a more palatable experience, and it allows you to “filter” the sediment from the wine. Before opening, you allowed the bottle to rest a moment, yes? Gravity pulled all the sediment to the bottom of the bottle… so as you are pouring the last quarter of the bottle into the decanter, and you begin to see sediment, you can cease pouring, and avoid lovely chunks of sediment in your glass. We will revisit the decanting process in a later Juicy Tannins Wine 101.
|Try to avoid sediment - the byproduct of tannins breaking down - in your glass.|
Now, please take into consideration that 90-95% of all bottled wine is actually meant to be enjoyed shortly after bottling. Only about 5-10% of Cabernets, Cab Francs, Merlots, Syrahs, and other intense red wines are meant to be aged. How can you tell the difference? Quite honestly, the fastest way to tell the difference is price. A more expensive wine, in general, should have a bit of age to it. How old depends on your preference – the longer you are able to age it, the more breakdown in tannins that occurs… however, wait too long, and the bottle may spoil. Aging wine can be just as much of a gamble – or an art – as playing the stock market. For some prestigious Red Bordeaux and California Bordeaux Blends, you can enjoy the wine, after it has been properly cellared, for as much as 20 to 30 years. If you ever have the chance to read The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace, I highly recommend it. It is a fantastic journey of the world’s oldest bottles of drinkable, and unfortunately some spoiled, wines with price tags to match their fame.
Again making generalizations, younger palates tend to enjoy big, tannic wines; more experienced palates prefer a wine that has had the chance to break down and become more elegant in the bottle. This is certainly not true of everyone, but just for the everyday wine drinker, this is generally the case. When buying wine at the grocery store, or ordering a bottle in your favorite restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask the wine buyer or steward when he or she would drink the bottle you are purchasing. Some examples of wine to cellar (age) would be: Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour, Beau Vigne, Chimney Rock, Opus One, and almost any flagship Bordeaux and Borolo wines. Most second label Bordeaux bottles are ready for consumption upon release (such as Chateau Gruaud Larose’s Larose de Gruaud).
|Chateau Grauad Larose is a fantastic wine to be aged. Aging allows the |
breakdown of tannins, and produces a more elegant, luscious wine.
For the other 50% of the world’s wine production - white wine - the skin contact process simply does not exist. White wine production generally only utilizes the juice of the grape, not the skins. Therefore, white wine primarily does not contain tannins, and should generally be consumed within the first few years of the bottle’s life. I say “generally,” because there are always exceptions. As we will learn in later Wine 101 posts, some of the world’s oldest wines are whites, but due to a completely different aging factor: sugar.
So what are “juicy” tannins? Tannins can take on other properties in a bottle of wine, depending on the varietal, what climate conditions existed during the wine’s vintage, and how the wine has evolved in the bottle throughout the aging process. Tannins are juicy when they exhibit full, almost sweet qualities. It’s a “balance” descriptor that jumps from tannins to body to flavor… "it’s juicy!" Tannins can be luscious, silky, sexy, or gracious. The robust, somewhat bitter, presence is still there, but the wine has evolved so that each contact with your palate bursts like a “Gusher” gummy fruit snack. You know… juicy!