Big red wines will be tannin your hide
by Thor Iverson
It makes young wines undrinkable. In older wines, it turns into thick black
sludge. It's sometimes described as "tongue-shriveling." It's called
tannin, and it's a good thing.
Two weeks ago, when I wrote about
in wine, I mentioned that acidity
provides backbone (or "structure") for white wines. In red wine, tannin
provides more of the structure, and it often overwhelms the
Tannin is a chemical substance that comes from grape skins, stems, and seeds.
(The skins also impart color to wine, which is why red wines typically have a
lot more tannin than whites.) Tannins also come from the wood used for some
kinds of wine barrels.
The taste of tannin is easy enough to identify. Bite into a grape skin, an
apple skin, a walnut, and you'll sense the dry bitterness typical of tannin. (In
fact, tannin actually creates a very thin film of leather in your mouth, which is
why it's the "tanning agent" for turning cow hides into a stylish fall coat and
a pair of gloves.)
And if you've ever sipped oversteeped tea (which is extremely tannic), you know
that it's not the most pleasant thing in the world to drink. So why do you want
it in your wine?
In addition to providing structure, tannin (along with
acidity) plays an
important role in a wine's aging potential. As age-worthy red wines mature,
tannin molecules gradually accumulate and precipitate out of the wine
(along with other chemicals) into the
harmless sediment -- that black sludge at the bottom of older red wines --
changing both the color and character of the wine. (We'll talk more about aging
in a later column.)
The desirable amount of tannin in a wine, then, depends on the wine's purpose.
Are you going to drink it tonight or 20 years from now? High-tannin wines can
be unpleasant to drink young, whereas low-tannin wines rarely age that long.
Are you serving it with food? High-tannin wines need big, bold food tastes;
low-tannin wines need softer, simpler cuisine. Watch the salt; tannins can
become astringent (harsh and "weedy") with salty food. Personal taste also
enters into it -- in general, the French prefer their wine young and tannic,
the British prefer it old and fading, and Americans fall somewhere in the
middle, while wasting a lot of energy wondering if they're drinking wine at the
High-tannin wines are produced in most regions of France (except in
Beaujolais, where the wines can go either way) and Italy. French reds from
Bordeaux, and Italian reds like Barolo and Barbaresco, are particularly tannic,
while French reds from Burgundy, and Italian wines like Dolcetto and Barbera,
are less tannic. Vintage port
is also very tannic when young, as are wines made
from the syrah (a/k/a/ shiraz)
and cabernet sauvignon grapes. On the other
hand, wines made from
pinot noir and sangiovese grapes,
as well as Spanish Riojas,
are more approachable (smoother and less tannic).
A few recommendations to help clarify the concept:
1994 Sierra Cantabria Rioja Crianza ($11.99). A delicious Spanish wine
made for quick consumption, with very light tannins and an exuberant vanilla,
blueberry, raspberry, and strawberry taste. There are plenty of Riojas designed
to age (i.e., with higher tannin and
levels), but this is not one of them. Drink it tonight with something spicy.
1994 red Bordeaux wines from Château Sociando-Mallet
(Haut-Médoc), Château Langoa-Barton (St. Julien),
Château Hortevie (Pauillac), Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste
(Pauillac), or Château d'Armailhac (Pauillac). Available for
$30 or less, and all representative of young Bordeaux's high tannins. Also
watch for heavy cassis (black currant) flavors, and the tobacco taste that wine
writers refer to as "cigar box." They're not yet mature, but if you try one of
them before and after biting into a grilled steak, you'll notice how the
tannic bitterness is affected by the food.
1993 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie Côtes Brune et Blonde
($33). Very young and tannic wine from the Rhône Valley, with powerful
tastes of licorice, game, and sweet red fruit. The 1986 E. Guigal
Côte-Rôtie Côtes Brune et Blonde ($33) is a mature
version of the same wine, with cassis and olive notes added. If you can afford
to try both of these, you'll note how the tannins have largely melted away in
the '86. Both go well with grilled meats and roasted vegetables.
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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