Most of us have at least heard of wine tannin. But what is it, exactly? And how does it affect our perception of wine?
What Are Wine Tannins?
Tannin is a naturally occurring polyphenol found in plants, seeds, bark, wood, leaves, and fruit skins.
Polyphenols are macromolecules made of phenols: complex bonds of oxygen and hydrogen molecules. (Yep, wine is science!)
The term “tannin” comes from the ancient Latin word for tanner, and refers to the use of tree bark to tan hides.
What Do Wine Tannins Taste Like?
Tannin in wine adds both bitterness and astringency, as well as complexity. It is most commonly found in red wine, although some white wines have tannin too (from aging in wooden barrels or fermenting on skins).
Need an example? Put a wet tea bag on your tongue. 50% of the dry weight of plant leaves are pure tannin.
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Other foods with tannin:
- Tea Leaves
- Walnuts, Almonds, and other whole nuts (with skins)
- Dark Chocolate
- Cinnamon, Clove, and other whole spices
- Pomegranates, Grapes, and Açaí Berries
Are Wine Tannins Bad For You?
No: in fact, wine tannins are likely good for your health.
There is actually a study on the effects of wine and tea tannin and oxidation in the body. In the tests, wine tannin resists oxidation whereas tea tannin did not. In other words, it’s an antioxidant.
What about migraines? The jury is still out on the connection between tannin and migraines. To remove them from your diet, you’d need to stop consuming chocolate, nuts, apple juice, tea, pomegranate and wine.
While wines with pronounced tannin can seem harsh and astringent on their own, they can be the best of all possible partners for certain foods, and are a key ingredient toward a wine’s ability to age well.
What Wine Has The Most Tannins?
Red wines have more tannins than white wines, but not all red wines are equal. Here are some examples of high-tannin red wines:
- Tannat: Uruguay’s most planted grape, Tannat is known for having some of the highest polyphenols of all red wines.
- Sagrantino: A rare treasure of central Italy, Sagrantino stands neck and neck with Tannat with its extreme tannin content.
- Petite Sirah: Originally French, Petite Sirah and its powerful flavors are now largely found in California.
- Nebbiolo: One of Italy’s most legendary grapes, Nebbiolo boasts high tannin content and bitterness while still having a delicate nose.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: You know this one. The most widely planted grape in the world is known for velvety tannins and high aging potential.
- Petit Verdot: Known best as one of Bordeaux’s red blending grapes, Petit Verdot offers a floral, smooth sense of tannin.
- Monastrell: Popular in Spain and France, Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre) has a smoky, bold sense of tannin.
It’s helpful to remember that winemaking style greatly affects how much tannin is in a wine. In general, high production wines are deliberately created to have rounder, softer feeling tannins.
Pairing High Tannin Wine with Foods
The astringency of tannin is a perfect partner for rich, fatty foods.
For example, tannin cuts through the intense meaty protein of a dry-aged fat-marbled steak, permitting subtler flavors of both wine and food to emerge. The tannin molecules actually bind onto proteins and other organic compounds in the food and scrape them from your tongue. Wow!
Learn more about how to pair wine and food.
What Red Wine Has No Tannins?
The very process of making red wine means that all of them have tannins. If it’s red, there are tannins: period.
In fact, there are tannins in white wine as well! However, because most white wines are immediately pressed rather than macerated, the amount of tannin from their skins and seeds is usually quite low.
Looking for low tannin red wines? Check out this article about the softer side of red.
How Do Tannins Help Balance Wine?
When it comes to finding the best wines, most experts will tell you that the key lies in balance, essentially, the key qualities of wine complementing each other seamlessly. Tannin (which also helps give a wine structure) is one of those key qualities, along with acidity, alcohol, and fruit.
Actually, Tannins Help Wines Age Well
Despite the shocking astringency that high tannin wines have when they’re young, it’s one of the key traits that allows red wines to age well for decades.
Over time, those big, bitter tannins will polymerize, creating long chains with each other, causing them to feel smoother and less harsh.
It’s one of the key reasons that a young, powerful wine like Brunello di Montalcino is often aged for as long as 10 years before it’s opened.
Of course, some people really enjoy all that bitterness! But to collectors, a well-aged wine with heavy tannins is worth its weight in gold (sometimes literally).
Case in Point: Barolo
Getting to Know (and Love) Tannins
I lived in a village in the middle of the Barolo area of Piemonte, Italy for over a decade.
For much of this time my home was in the upper floor of an old farmhouse on a hill surrounded by vineyards: prized vineyards of Nebbiolo grapes destined to become Barolo.
I woke with the vines in the morning as the sun rose behind the castle of my village.
I worked in the vineyards during the day, drank wine made from those very same vines in the evening, and said buona notte to them when I went to bed.
Sometimes I even thought I could hear them dreaming during the night.
I guess you could say I was immersed in Nebbiolo: which means I was immersed in tannin.
Nebbiolo is one of those grapes that is naturally, unavoidably, unapologetically high in tannins. The first sip or two can leave your gums throbbing and your mouth as dry as a dusty windowpane.
This can come as a shock if you’re not expecting it. Some people cut their losses right there, make up a polite excuse and set off in search of a cuddly, velvety Merlot.
Others, whether out of stubbornness, masochism, or an intuitive hunch that something genuinely worthwhile might emerge, sit tight and take a bite of the charcoal-grilled T-bone steak in front of them, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and cracked pepper.
Emboldened, they take another sip of wine. Then, in an instant, it all makes sense.