Wine Jargon: What Is Tannin?

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Tannin, n.

A diverse and complex group of chemical compounds that occur in the bark of many trees and in fruits. Strictly speaking, a tannin is a compound that is capable of interacting with proteins and precipitating them, this is the basis of the process of tanning animal hides (hence the name tannin) and is also a process that is believed to be responsible for the sensation of astringency.”—Jancis RobinsonThe Oxford Companion to Wine

Fundamentals, people. We’re focusing on fundamentals. You can slam-dunk later on.

I’m sure you know this word already. Tannin was likely the first piece of wine vocab you learned. It was definitely the first term I absorbed. The word served as explanation for why I didn’t like that French red at that house party, the one nursed from the bottle, age twenty. My face had contorted, and someone pointed out Oh, that’s tannin, bro. Allow me to expand on that first lesson…

You are probably already skilled at identifying the sensation of tannin, that drying astringency mostly associated with red wines. However, red wine is not the only place you encounter the stuff. Black tea has tannin in spades (especially when oversteeped), as does the skin of a peanut. The skins of common apple varieties are always a bit tannic, but the tannin of crabapples and traditional cider apples is usually so intense (especially with their soaring levels of acidity) that it makes them pretty much inedible.

Tannin exists in the skin, seeds, and stems of grapes. Red wines get color and tannin by soaking these components in the fermenting juice. White juice usually ferments on its own, away from all that material, so they don’t show much tannin (although there is usually still a touch). There’s also tannin in the oak barrels that wine is sometimes aged in—how much depends on how the barrels were made and whether they’ve been used in winemaking before. Tannin is one of the main things that allows a red wine to age, with acidity being the other. These two become the framework upon which the fancier thing, fruit, is draped.

Why is one wine more tannic than another? Ugh, that’s a huge question, even for science, but grape variety will be the most important factor (compare the very tannic Nebbiolo of Italy‘s Piedmont against their softer Barbera, if you feel like it). Growing site, winemaking technique, and ripeness also seem to affect how much tannin makes it into the wine, while our old pal acidity seems to enhance our perception of it. It all begins to interconnect…

About the Author: Steven Grubbs is a sommelier and wine director at Empire State South (Atlanta, GA) and Five & Ten (Athens, GA). Ask him what to drink on Twitter, where he also accepts questions on tacos and manhood.

Wine Jargon: What is Minerality?

Glimmerschiefer

Another type of rock, another sensation of minerality: Glimmerschiefer in Austria [Photo: Maggie Hoffman]

“Lick it,” he told me, “Lick the rock.” I had heard of this kind of thing before, but still, I figured that Thibeault Liger-Belair, winemaker and inheritor of crazy-good chunks of prime Burgundy vineyard land, must have been at least halfway kidding.

He wasn’t. He demonstrated, turning an oblong hunk of mottled limestone in his hand and then dragging it lengthwise down the center of his unfurled tongue. He did it kind of hard. It was a little grotesque looking. He tossed the rock back into the clay of his sizable section of Les Saint Georges vineyard, for which Nuits-Saint-Georges is named.

I followed suit, taking it easier than he. He started making a weird pursing motion with his mouth. “Feel that? That is true minerality.” And, actually, I did feel it. It was a kind of pastiness, a thick adherent texture in the middle of my tongue. I have, in fact, since detected a shadow of this sensation when drinking wines from limetone soils. So, yeah, maybe Thibeault was right.

Minerality can be a slippery concept for new wine drinkers, partly because there isn’t a lot in our common culinary language to compare it to. Shellfish? Mushrooms, maybe? Overpriced bottles of acqua minerale?

There is also the fact that minerality comes in so many shifting shades. Often, it is recognizable as a scent, like the smell of river pebbles, hot rocks, or straight-up wet dirt. Other times, what we’re talking about is a flavor, a rocky saltiness, and this can feed into a saline, pasty texture. I think this was probably what Thibeault was driving at.

Where that sensation of minerality comes from is one of the enduring mysteries of wine science. There isn’t a generally-agreed-upon explanation for how the flavor of a soil finds its way into a grape. We don’t really know how it happens, though there are a number of theories.

But minerality isn’t just in our imaginations. We have experienced it for, like, thousands of years. And its effect in wine—which seems to work opposite of fruit flavors—can make the difference between a wine that is just okay and one that is truly fine. I don’t think we are dreaming. I don’t think we are nuts. Even if we are standing around, licking expensive, significant rocks.

About the Author: Steven Grubbs is a sommelier and wine director at Empire State South (Atlanta, GA) and Five & Ten (Athens, GA). Ask him what to drink on Twitter, where he also accepts questions on tacos and manhood.

Wine Jargon: What Is Acidity?

Editor’s Note: In this series, Steven Grubbs, wine director at Empire State South(Atlanta, GA) and Five & Ten (Athens, GA), seeks to break down the jargon he threw at you last night.

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You’ll need some riesling with that pork belly.

Acidity, n.

Last night, when I used this word at your table (I think the topic was how awesome the riesling is with pork belly), I loaded it with such obvious ardor that you must have wondered if acidity wasn’t some weird byword for quality, that acidity=good.

And the equation might hold, at least for many sommeliers. Acid may be for us what capsaicin is for judges of chili cook-offs. Most of us are hooked on the stuff.

It is the acidity of orange juice that wakes you up in the morning. And it is the lime squeeze that enlivens your carnitas, the malt vinegar that keeps you motivated in front of your fish-n-chips. Acid in wine not only helps invigorate your food, but also works within the matrix of the wine itself to make you want you want to keep on drinking.

Acidity gives discipline and shape to a wine. Otherwise, the fruit flavors and alcohol would just laze around anywhere, directionless. Acid does the clutch work of tidying up.

A few types of acid may appear in a wine. Which ones, and their relative proportions, will have some bearing on its texture. Tartaric acid is the abundant workhorse acid, performing much of that task of structural stability. High levels of malic acid, will make a wine feel tart and fresh, like green apple, whereas lactic acid is rounder and less acute. Wines that have gone through a conversion called malolactic fermentation will have at least some of its malic turned into lactic (most reds see this conversion, as do some whites).

Certain wines, like Pinot Gris from Alsace, or some Northern Rhone whites, make stylish use of lower acidity to create attractive satiny textures. These wines are interesting exceptions to our earlier equation (and can be used to refute us junkie somms when we go on and on and on about acidity).

About the Author: Steven Grubbs is a sommelier and wine director at Empire State South (Atlanta, GA) and Five & Ten (Athens, GA). Ask him what to drink on Twitter, where he also accepts questions on tacos and manhood.

Wine Jargon: What is Residual Sugar?

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Sweet. [Photo: Steven Grubbs]

In the broad pantheon of eternal wine lingo, perhaps no other phrase carves out sharper lines of drinking identity than the words residual sugar. People tend to define themselves as drinkers by the way they react to its existence, and we can usually track them as tasters this way, too. There seems to be a natural arc moving from the mode of “Yum! That’s sweet”, to the nose-wrinkling of “Ugh, it’s sweet“, to “Oh! This wine has a little RS, and that’s cool by me…” In the interest of a tolerant spirit, let’s explore the whys and the how-comes.

Residual Sugar, or RS for short, refers to any natural grape sugars that are leftover after fermentation ceases (whether on purpose or not). The juice of wine grapes starts out intensely sweet, and fermentation uses up that sugar as the yeasts feast upon it. The by-products are bubbly CO2 gas and our adorable amigo, alcohol.

There are many reasons why fermentation might stop. The age-old method has to do with alcohol toxicity. Different yeast strains can tolerate different levels of alcohol, so a weaker strain might die before eating all the sugar in the fermenting wine. In the case of a dessert wine like Sauternes or ice wine, the sugars are concentrated when the grapes get shriveled, so there’s a lot of sugar to ferment. When alcohol reaches the level of a normal dry wine, say 12 or 14%, the yeast might die, but plenty of uneaten sugar is left. In the case of a fortified wine, hard booze is added to get a similar job done.

Fermentation is also temperature-sensitive, happening faster at warm temperatures and slower in the cold, so it will stop if the temperature drops too much. A winemaker can chill a wine down until fermentation stops, then just get rid of the yeast. No more yeast, no more fermentation. Certain chemical compounds can snuff them out, too.

In addition to its obvious sweetening power, sugar also has a bonus effect: it can help wines age well. If you can go the long haul, say, a decade (or two, or three), the RS can bring deep dividends. We’ve talked>a little about which wines age well: those with a little RS can be the most exciting to taste as they evolve over time. The sugar compounds change shape, and we perceive them less directly, so the wines even seem to dry out a bit.

Whether your bottle is young or elderly, you should think of RS as having a balancing relationship with acidity. They are on opposite sides of the seesaw, so if the wine has sugar you will probably want strong acidity, too—otherwise the wine will feel cloying. On the other hand, certain very high-acid wines, like Vouvray or Riesling, can be far more tasty with a few extra grams of RS. (Remember: we like balance more than anything.)

About the Author: Steven Grubbs is a sommelier and wine director at Empire State South (Atlanta, GA) and Five & Ten (Athens, GA). Ask him what to drink on Twitter, where he also accepts questions on tacos and manhood.

Some Japanese Whisky Tasting Notes

Suntory Yamazaki Single Malt

The Yamazaki distillery was Japan’s first distillery—the birthplace of Japanese whisky. Centrally located near the confluence of three rivers outside of Kyoto, it’s Suntory’s flagship in many ways, so it’s only fitting that their 12 year expression was the first Japanese whisky available in the US.

A lovely single malt in the style of a Speyside Scotch, the Yamazaki 12 starts out light and fruity up front with the scent of apples and honey, transitioning into deeper malt flavor and a hint of barrel spices appear on tasting. With a light mouthfeel and finish fading from sweetness to spice, it’s devastatingly drinkable at 86 proof—a perfect entry point into the world of Japanese whisky, and the cheapest entry point at around $40 a bottle.

The Yamazaki 18 is also available at a more pricey $135 or so, as well as a limited-release expression of the Yamazaki 1984 (largely sold out even at a MSRP of $600). They are both exceptional whiskies, so if you’re looking to take the next step in your journey, these are the bottles for you.

Suntory Hakushu Single Malt 12

Further north, Suntory’s Hakushu distillery is located outside Hokuto in the Yamanashi prefecture. Nestled in Japan’s Southern Alps, it’s one of the highest single malt distilleries in the world, though its nickname is “the forest distillery.” A lightly peated whisky, the Hakushu 12 smells similar to the Yamazaki—sweet and fruity—but the delicate smoke adds a very lively contrast. On tasting, citrus and ginger start to emerge with a bit of pepper and heat. Once again, the mouthfeel is luscious but light, and the finish lingers briefly with a touch of dry smoke. It’s incredibly fresh and crisp for a peated whisky. Hakushu 12 is 86 proof and listing at around $55 a bottle.

Suntory Hibiki 12

A blended whisky made from malt and grain whiskies from Suntory’s distilleries aged in a range of barrels (including plum wine barrels) the 12 year expression is the sweetest of the Suntory whiskies. Honeyed and floral, with desert flavors of vanilla, clove, and almond, it’s rounded out by a substantial grain presence and enough wood to keep the sweetness in balance. The Hibiki 12 is 86 proof and lists around $60 a bottle. (Bonus: Bill Murray is selling the Hibiki 17 in Lost in Translation, but the bottle has the same appearance, so you can play the part at home!)

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 12

Nikka’s blended whisky offering to the US is not a blend of grain and malt whiskies, like the Hibiki, bur rather a blend of only malt whiskies (hence ‘pure malt’). Drawing on stocks from the Yoichi and Miyagijyo distilleries, it’s fruity and round. Apples, barley, and sweet grain transition to honey and wood spices, with just a trace of smokiness to pull it all together. With a heftier body than the Hibiki, it’s a more muscular blend without sacrificing balance. A wonderful pure malt that stands on its own at 80 proof, it’s priced at $70 a bottle.

Nikka Yoichi Single Malt 15

The Yoichi distillery is on the island of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japans four major islands. Situated on a coastal perch that’s partially surrounded by mountains, it’s Nikka’s oldest distillery. The Yoichi 15 is Nikka’s marquee offering stateside, and it’s the boldest whisky of the day. Sweet, nutty, and sherried on the nose, the malt transforms on tasting. Evolving very dramatically from a mild oakiness to intense spices and ginger to mild sweetness, it finishes with all of the flavors commingling and drifting off on a wisp of smoke. Full bodied and rich, it’s a journey in a glass. The Yoichi 15 is bottled at 90 proof and lists for $130 a bottle.

Japanese Whisky: General Knowledge

Whisky production in Japan began around 1870, but the first commercial production was in 1924 upon the opening of the country’s first distilleryYamazaki. Broadly speaking the style of Japanese whisky is more similar to that of Scotch whisky than IrishAmerican, or Canadian styles of whiskey, and thus the spelling typically follows the Scottish convention (omitting the letter “e”).

There are several companies producing whisky in Japan. Perhaps the two most well known are Suntory and Nikka. Both of these produce blended as well as single malt whiskies.

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