Explaining Tannins and How These Affect the Taste of Wine
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Explaining Tannins and How These Affect the Taste of Wine

What are tannins and how these affect wine tasting and appreciation. Which wines have tannins and why they have tannins. Flavors, tannins, sugars and acidity in wine. How to taste wine, mouthfeel and what impacts the palate. How tannins balance other flavors and sensations of wine. How aging wine affects tannin levels.

When discussing wine tasting, it is not uncommon to hear or read that a wine "has firm tannins" or that it "has mellow" or "subtle" tannins.  Not everyone understandings what this means, frequently including the person making the statement.  This is unfortunate as understanding the role that tannins play in wine and how these affect our palate is vital to understanding and appreciating wine.

First, what are tannins?

Tannins are a bitter and astringent plant compound which aid in plant growth, while the modification or breakdown of tannins help ripen fruit and age wine.  These are frequently found in the bark, leaves and fruit of immature plants as well as in the skins and seeds of many fruits.  Tannins are also found in certain woods, including oak, which is another reason why wines that have been aged in oak barrels will often contain tannins.  Many teas, especially black teas, are high in tannin due to these being made from plant leaves.  Tannins are also found in numerous spices, including vanilla, cinnamon, cloves and cumin, again due to these spices being made from the bark, leaves or fruits of certain plants. Tannins can also be found in chocolate and different types of nuts, beans and berries.  There is a theory that the tannins found in nature may serve as a self-defense for the plant, simply because the astringent and bitter taste of the tannins will make the plant unpopular with birds or insects, causing these animals to eat other foods.

Why are tannins in wine?

Red wines tend to have much higher levels of tannin than white wines.  This is because when red wine is made, the entire grape, including the skin and often the stem or seeds of the grape, are used.  In comparison, white wines only use the crushed juice from white and/or red grapes.  (Yes, many red grapes are used for white wines.  For example:  Pinot Noir is a red grape that is often used in making white wines, including champagne.)  By fermenting the grapes with its skin still on, possibly along with its seeds and stems, the tannins are released into the wine.  Wines, including white wines, that are aged in oak barrels may also contain tannins as the barrels will create a secondary source of tannin.  An important thing to remember is that tannins are most often found in fruits, plants and barks that are immature.  Red wines that are high in tannin or white wines that are aged in oak will eventually see their tannins become more mellow as they age.  For this reason, high-tannin wines are usually aged in order to make the wine less bitter or astringent.

How do tannins affect wine tasting?

While it may seem that bitterness or astringency in wine may not be pleasing, the truth is that tannins can create a complex and well-structured wine that helps balance a wine's sweetness.  A wine that puckers the mouth may give that wine extra depth and character, providing a greater and fuller "mouthfeel", which is an important factor in red wines as well as certain white wines.  Red wines that contain a higher level of residual sugar but are not meant to be "sweet" will benefit from containing higher tannins, as the bitterness and astringency of the tannins will balance the sweetness while the sugars will help soften the flavor of the tannins.  Bitterness is one of the five primary tastes and is often more readily noticeable on the palate, well ahead of sweetness.  Astringency is less understood, in part because this impacts the feel of something in the mouth rather than directly affecting the taste.  "Mouthfeel" is another trait that tends not to be understood yet is one of the factors that contributes to our appreciation of wine.  It can be described as "chewy", "smooth", "full", "sweet", "big", "acidic" and much more.  It is mostly used to describe the sensation of wine in the mouth, often described as "texture" yet it also impacts our perception of the wine's flavor. If a wine feels dry in the mouth, it may also taste "dry" on the palate as we are less likely to notice the sweetness.  Wines that feel smooth or full in the mouth may seem better balanced between bitter and sweet.  The perception of wine in the mouth may cause us to better appreciate that wine, regardless of its residual sugar, acidity or tannins.

There are distinct phases in how we taste and appreciate wine:

  • The "attack phase" (also occasionally known as the "first phase" or "forward phase") of a wine relates to the initial impression of a wine in the mouth.  This is usually broken down into its alcohol content, tannin levels, acidity and sugar.  While we may notice these different characteristics in a specific order, it is the combination of these traits and how we interpret them that leads to our appreciation of wine.  These might not have any exact flavor we notice, other than perhaps a vague "fruitiness" or "spiciness" but is nonetheless part of our initial response to a wine.  
  • This is followed by the "mid-range" or "mid-palate" aspects of wine tasting, when we tend to notice the more precise characteristics of flavor.  This is when we notice the specific types of fruit, spice or other flavors we taste.  When we describe a wine as having a taste of "plum", "vanilla", "leather", "smokiness" or "black pepper", it is in relation to our mid-palate flavors and sensations.  
  • The "finish" or "final phase" of the wine refers to how long the flavor or sensation continues in the mouth after the last swallow, as well as what flavors or sensations we notice after that swallow.  Some examples of this can include a long finish of black cherries and pepper, or a shorter and diminishing aspect of leather and tobacco smoke.  It may also simply be described as "long", "short", "sweet", "bitter", "spicy", "fruity" or "peppery".  

Individual palates are as unique as fingerprints.  Each wine taster may notice certain aspects more than others, or completely miss certain characteristics in a wine.  In addition, how we pair each wine may also impact our appreciation of that wine.  When choosing a wine, we should consider more than simply the levels of tannins or residual sugars, even when we know that we might like or dislike sweet or bitter wines.  We should instead consider how each of these traits may interact with each other and how this determines our true appreciation of a wine.

I hope you appreciated this article.  You may also enjoy my following articles regarding wine:

Dry and Sweet Wines: Understanding Residual Sugar, Tannins and Acidity

Wine Tasting 101: Fruitiness Does Not Equal Sweetness

Wine Tasting: Pairing and Appreciating Malbec Wine

Meritage Wine: America's Bordeaux-Styled Blend

"Anything but Chardonnay?" Learning about Chardonnay and an alternative, Viognier.

WSJ Wine Review — Wine Clubs Comparison (2012)


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