Tuesday, May 02, 2006
The Dreaded, Evil Tannin
Some fear it more than death.
Some fear it more than public speaking.
Some fear it more than speaking publically at their own funeral.
The dreaded, Evil, tannin!
Now I'm sure some of you are skeptical about this fear of tannin, but it exists. I'm an eyewitness. Mention high tannins and you'll see it - the sweat on the brow, shakiness in the hands, fear in the eyes. If you listen, you'll hear a quaver in the voice.
The tannin monster is just like any other monster that lives in your closet or under your bed. Stare it down and you'll find it's nothing to fear. But, before I can turn on the lights and scare away the ugly tannin monster by explaining what it is, where it comes from, what flavors it brings to wine and how to detect it, I really need to explain what it is not.
Tannic content in wine has NOTHING to do with the sweetness or dryness of it. As I mentioned in the last post, whether a wine is sweet or dry is only a matter of sugar content of the wine. If a winemaker stops fermentation before all the sugar is gone, it's a sweet wine. If a winemaker allows yeast to eat all the sugar in the grape juice, it's dry.
I repeat, the sugar content in a wine, sweet or dry, has NOTHING to do with tannin. You can find both dry and sweet wines that have a ton of tannin in them. I've had dessert wines with so much tannin in them, you'll think your teeth are melting. On the other hand, I've had dry wines that possessed virtually no perceptible tannin at all. So just keep in mind - both dry and sweet wines can be tannic.
The Color of Evil
Well then, if they have nothing to do with dryness in wine, what the Hell are tannins and where do they come from?
Tannins are a complex group of organic compounds called anthocyanins and polyphenols and come primarily from grape skins but are also found in the seeds and stems. Wanna know the cool thing? ALL grape juice is white, whether from the palest green grapes, to pink to purple to the blackest of black grapes. Smoosh a grape - get white juice.
If this is true, how do we get red wine? Tannin. Soak the skins with the juice (a process called macerating) and the skins literally disintegrate into the wine. The longer the skins sit with the juice, the more tannin. The darker the skin on the grape, the higher the tannin content. Tannin in white grapes? Not so much.
How's Evil Taste? Kinda chalky.*
So, we know tannin contributes one important thing to wine - color. What else does it do?
Tannin adds a very specific flavor to wine, bitterness.
Shock! Horror! Fear! Mispronunciation of common words!
Nobody could possibly want bitter flavor in food!
Coffee? Bitter. Black tea? Bitter. Chocolate? Bitter. Need I go on?
This is the scariest thing about tannin and wine drinkers. While many people love the bitter flavors in coffee, tea and chocolate, they revile it in wine. Just like in these other foods, bitter flavors in wine give balance to the fruit, acid and oak you find in red wine. If people appreciate this in coffee, chocolate and tea, why not in wine?
Think back to your first cup of coffee. Did you like it? No. It was really bitter, right? You might even have wondered why anyone would drink the nasty stuff. Now? Can't conceive of living without it, can ya? What happened? You got accustomed to that bitterness. You acquired the acquired taste. Keep drinking red wines. You'll eventually specialize in mergers and acquisitions.
How Do I know it's Evil?
You know what tannin is, where it comes from and what it adds to wine. There's only one matter left - other than bitter flavor, how can you tell how tannic a wine is?
Let's do a demonstration.
Go get a green banana. You know, one that's not quite ripe. I'll wait.
That's OK, take your time. This is important.
No, no, don't apologize, I'll wait. Even if you have to go to the store to get one.
Back? Good. Now, peel the banana and take a bite out of it. Yes, I know it's not ripe, but that's the point. Make sure you chew it thoroughly and smear it over all the parts of your palate, front, middle and back. Now swallow and think about how it feels in your mouth.
The back of your tongue, the roof of your mouth, the insides of your cheeks and even your gums and teeth - they feel like they're wearing sweaters. Fuzzy sweaters. Angora sweaters. The fuzzier the sweaters, the more tannic the wine.
Wait, that sensation is familiar! What is it? Hmmm...feels...feels...feels DRY!!
Remember the last post? When I said that dry wine has nothing to do with the feeling of dryness you get on your mouth, teeth and gums? See what I mean now? That's tannin.
This isn't all you need to know about tannin and I'll cover more on a later date. I just wanted to make the distinction between dry wine and tannic wine clearer.
How about some irony for dessert? I love tannic wines. Hate coffee. Funny how that works out, huh?
*With apologies to Joss Whedon and Alyson Hannigan