Wine Word of the Week: "Tannins"

Fall and Winter are prime "red wine" seasons and the topic of tannins is certainly a hot one this time of year. For that reason, “tannins” is our official Wine Word of the Week. But if you think you don't know what "tannins" are, chances are good that if you're reading this, you've encountered them before - just ask yourselves these simple questions:

  • Have you ever taken a sip of red wine and felt a drying sensation in your mouth?

  • Have you ever woken up with a throbbing headache after a night of drinking red wine?

  • Have you ever enjoyed an aged red wine that was deliciously smooth and elegant?

If you've experienced any of the above, then you've experienced tannins, my wine loving friend! But just what the heck ARE they?

Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that play an important role in a wine's structure and directly affect its color, texture and aging ability. They are found in a host of plant species as well, and their astringent, bitter taste is intended to discourage predators and insects from consuming them. Similarly, tannins in wine are generally perceived as a drying, leathery sensation which is considered desirable by many wine lovers. This astringency acts as a preservative for wine, allowing it to age slowly with grace and not turn to vinegar.

Depending on the type and age of a wine, its tannins can be described as velvety, firm, ripe, chewy, tight, dusty or round. In older wines, the tannins often precipitate out of solution to some degree and collect at the bottom of the wine bottle in the form of harmless sediment.

Wines acquire tannins through contact with grape skins, seeds and stems as well as the oak barrels the wine is aged in. For that reason, tannins are much more prevalent in red wine since the juice remains in contact with the grape skins for a period of time in order to obtain its color. Red wines are usually aged in oak barrels, another source of tannins for red wines. Also, the deeper the color of the red wine, the more tannins it contains, so a Cabernet Sauvignon will most likely have more tannins than a Pinot Noir.

As far as food and wine pairing goes, protein actually mitigates tannins. Therefore, foods that are high in protein, like a juicy New York Strip Steak, pair remarkably well with tannic wines. In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon, the three most tannic grape varieties are Nebbiolo, Syrah and Tannat.

While some studies have shown tannins have beneficial effects on cardiovascular health, some believe it is the chemical compound that wreaks havoc on migraine sufferers. So, if you experience migraine headaches after drinking red wine, it's NOT the sulfites, my friend! White wine has approximately twice the sulfites as red wine and true sulfite allergies generally manifest as breathing issues, not headaches. So if you've got a tendency to get migraines, you may want to steer clear of high tannin red wines and opt for those with lower levels and see if it reduces their frequency and/or duration (for more information on this, please click here).

I hope you enjoyed this Wine Word of the Week and if you have any “wine words” you’d like to know more about, please share them in the Comments section below and I’ll be sure to get to them. To see previous installments of this segment, please click here and, as always, thanks for reading!

Stephanie Miskew
Stephanie Miskew