WTF Are Tannins?

Ahh… tannins.  How often have you heard, “this wine is quite tannic” from someone trying to show off?

The fact is, tannins naturally occur in wine.  They’re found in the skins and seeds of grapes.  Because of this, their taste mostly shows up in red wine, since it’s fermented with the skins still on the grapes.  But what do tannins actually taste like?

A tannic taste in wine is that very dry, bitter sensation.  Often, it can be confused with acidity, but there is a difference.  On her podcast Wine for Normal People, Elizabeth Scheider sunned it up best for me—when you think acidity, think of sucking on a lemon.  Just picturing that, underneath your tongue basically starts to water.  On the other hand, while tannins may cause your mouth to water, they do so while tasting dry and almost astringent.

Over time, tannins will typically mellow out with some aging.  In fact, a high tannin wine will typically age better than one with lower tannin levels.  However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule.  If a wine isn’t well-balanced, no amount of aging will make it better.  And there are several non-tannic wines that could benefit from a few years in your basement.

But now let’s talk about the bullshit bit of tannins—headaches.  A very small portion of the population has a sensitivity to tannins that can spur on headaches.  Although you’re likely just hungover, there’s an easy way to test if you fall into this population subset.  Simply brew yourself a cup of black tea.  Tea is basically 100% tannins.  If you feel fine after drinking a cup, you’re probably just a fun lush.

What are some high-tannin wines?  Think Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Malbec.  Before I read about tannins, I used to think of them as a negative when it comes to wine.  Turns out, they’re highly present in some of my favorite wines and I was unjustly villainizing them.  If you’ve been doing the same, I encourage to get them a second glance.  Like me, you might be pleasantly surprised.

If you want to learn more about tannins, check out some of my favorite resources.  I used Wine Folly and my new favorite podcast, Wine for Normal People.

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