What Does Tannin Contribute to a Wine?

Posted by Ilya Dorfman on

Tannin gets talked about a lot, but what exactly is it and what does it contribute to wine? Tannin is a compound that comes from the stems, skins and seeds of grapes. Because red wine is fermented with the grape skins, tannin is much more present in red wines than white wines. The amount of tannin in a wine depends on the type of grape (for example, cabernet sauvignon grapes have much more tannin than pinot noir), the amount of time the wine spends on the skins and seeds, and if oak barrels were used in the winemaking process (the inside of oak barrels can provide a small amount of tannin). The flavor of ripe tannin is a good kind of bitterness, like dark chocolate or espresso, while unripe tannin, which happens when the grapes are picked before they are fully ripe, is unpleasantly bitter. The feeling of tannin is dryness, the same feeling you get when you drink strong black tea or bite into an unripe banana.

Tannin plays a big role in wine, not only providing flavor and texture, but also structure and ageability. Structure, a hard-to-define quality that can take a good wine to great, is the underlying “scaffolding” of a wine--it provides a “shape” to the wine and defines how the elements in the wine--alcohol, tannin, acidity and sugar--relate to one another. Tannin also contains elements that help a wine age. Think of the types of wine that famously age for 30 or 40 years--they are most often red wines that were strongly structured and very tannic when young (for example, Bordeaux red wines). Time allows tannins to soften, and tannins allow wine to survive the ravages of time. Now if someone could just bottle tannin in a night cream.

Which wines are high vs low in tannin?

We picked out a few examples to help illustrate wine tannins. 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’ feeling tannins. 

↑ High Tannin Wines

↓ Low Tannin Wines

Nebbiolo Barbera
Cabernet Sauvignon Zinfandel
Tempranillo Pinot Noir
Montepulciano Primitivo
Petit Verdot Grenache
Petite Sirah Merlot

Are Wine Tannins Good or Bad?

  • Tannins + Health = Good 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 may be super good for you.
  • What About Migraines? The jury is still out on the connection between tannin and migraines. In order to remove tannins from your diet you’ll need to stop consuming chocolate, nuts, apple juice, tea, pomegranate and, of course, wine.
  • Age-worthy Wines Tannin is a key component in what makes a wine age worthy.
What are your thoughts on tannin, structure and aging? We’d love to hear them here.

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