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.

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Varietal Characteristics of Some Common Wines

Varietal Characteristics of Common Wines

In order to appreciate wine, it’s essential to understand the characteristics different grapes offer and how those characteristics should be expressed in wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel are all red grapes, but as wines their personalities are quite different. Even when grown in different appellations and vinified using different techniques, a varietal wine always displays certain qualities, which are inherent in the grape’s personality. Muscat should always be spicy, Sauvignon Blanc a touch herbal. Zinfandel is zesty, with pepper and wild berry flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon is marked by plum, currant and black cherry flavors and firm tannins. Understanding what a grape should be as a wine is fundamental, and knowing what a grape can achieve at its greatest is the essence of fine-wine appreciation.

In Europe, the finest wines are known primarily by geographic appellation (although this is changing; witness the occasional French and Italian varietals). Elsewhere, however—as in America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand—most wines are labeled by their varietal names; even, sometimes, by grape combinations (Cabernet-Shiraz, for example). To a large extent, this is because in the United States, the process of sorting out which grapes grow best in which appellations is ongoing and Americans were first introduced to fine wine by varietal name. In Europe, with a longer history for matching grape types to soil and climate, the research is more conclusive: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, for instance, are the major grapes of Burgundy. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot are the red grapes of Bordeaux. Syrah dominates northern Rhône reds. Barolo and Barbaresco are both made of Nebbiolo, but the different appellations produce different styles of wine. In Tuscany, Sangiovese provides the backbone of Chianti. A different clone of Sangiovese is used for Brunello di Montalcino.

As a result, Europeans are used to wines with regional names.

In time, the New World’s appellation system may well evolve into one more like Europe’s. Already California appellations such as Carneros and Santa Maria Valley are becoming synonymous with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Oregon’s Willamette Valley is known for Pinot Noir and Australia’s Hunter Valley for Shiraz; back in California, Rutherford, Oakville and the Stags Leap District are all associated with Cabernet-based red table wines. Wineries with vested financial interests in these appellations and the marketing clout to emphasize the distinctive features of the wines grown in these areas will determine how the appellation system evolves and whether specific wine styles emerge. The appellations themselves will also determine which grapes excel and deserve special recognition.

Following are descriptions of the most commonly used Vitis vinifera grapes. American wine is also made from native Vitis labrusca, especially the Concord grape. For definitions of wine-making terms mentioned, please see the glossary. For information about wine growing regions mentioned, please see the country descriptions.

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