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What are tannins in wine?

When meeting and talking with cellar door staff and winemakers the word rolls off the tongue like it is a term we have all been using since we were kids.  For most, it isn’t. “What are tannins?” This is one of the most commonly asked questions on a wine tour, but normally later in the day (once someone turned to me at winery 4 and said “What the f*ck are tannins?”).

Ever heard any of the following and nodded along politely?

  • “The wine has a fine tannin structure”
  • “The grippy tannins will soften with age”
  • “The tannins in the wine are balanced by the acidity”

This post aims to tell you in plain English what tannins are and and how to identify them.

Talking tannins

Talking tannins with Peter Parker from Merricks Creek

What do tannins do in wine?

Tannins are the thing that make your mouth dry and pucker up when you swirl a wine around your mouth.  This astringency is what makes wine seem drying. A good example of tannin is strongly brewed black tea.

Tannins are a substance found in the skins, seeds and stems of grapes, but also in the oak used to age wine. In the plant world the chemicals are used to protect against threats.

Some points to note about tannins:

  • They mainly occur in red wines which are fermented from whole grapes, seeds and possibly stems – and more commonly aged in oak
  • They don’t occur as much in most white wines which take the skins, stems and seeds out, but some white wine with obvious tannins exist
  • Some skin contact and oak ageing means rose may have some tannins
  • Orange wines (white wines made like red wines) will have tannin as they include skins and seeds

Find more information about the difference between red and white wine here

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White wine tannins

White wine aged in oak will have tannins (but not as much as red) Moorooduc Estate

How to identify tannins?

People can usually identify with characteristics like “acidity” and “sweetness” as these are commonly used with everyday food. Once you know what to look for, tannins are actually one of the easiest things to identify in wine (for me anyway). To help you get used to tannins, try this test:

  • Choose a red wine from the high tannin list below
  • Swirl it around your mouth like a real wine taster, get it right up onto your gums
  • Notice how dry your mouth becomes for a few seconds. That is a “high tannin” or “tannic”
  • Then compare to a lower tannin red like a Pinot Noir. Notice that mouth-drying still occurs but it is much less prominent. These are finer tannins
  • Then try it with something like a unoaked Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio to see that there is no real drying sensation

d'Arenberg tannin bombs

Wines from d’Arenberg McLaren Vale, big tannins and need to be aged

High tannin red wines

Here are some of the higher tannin wine varieties to try, these have thicker grape skins:

  • Shiraz
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Nebbiolo (I had a youngish Barolo once and have never forgotten how much my mouth puckered up)
  • Malbec

And a couple of lower tannin red wines, these have thinner grape skins:

  • Pinot Noir
  • Gamay

Tannins and ageing wine

Tannins are a key component in what makes a wine age well.  There are plenty of great, high tannin red wines out there, that if you drink them too young will turn your mouth into the Sahara Desert.

We recently tried some younger D’Arenberg Shiraz from McLaren Vale which were nearly undrinkable, but are regarded as some of the best Shiraz in Australia.

With age the tannins in these wines will “smooth out”  and become “softer” giving the wines great structure.

There you have it, a bit of a beginner/intermediate guide to tannins, see below for a scientific image of tannins, stolen from the internet:

Scientific tannins

Scientific image of tannins, no idea what this means

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6 years ago

My friends and I laugh about tannins as everyone always goes on about it, but all of us secretly had no idea what they were talking about. After a wine tour one day, we all realised we were in the same boat and had some good chuckles

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