One term that sometimes trips up wine newcomers is “tannins”. It’s also one of those words people use to make fun of wine snobs. And why not, since people who show off by throwing around a lot of fancy terms might just deserve it. But seriously, what are tannins?

Tannins are those astringent particles found mostly in red wines that cause a drying sensation in your mouth—especially on the back of your tongue. Tannins come in a mix of shapes and sizes. From fine and rounded to full and rough. Fine, round tannins tend to make for smooth and silky wines, while full, rough tannins tend to make for powerful or even rustic wines.

Pressed Pinot Noir grapes soaking in their own juice.

Pressed Pinot Noir grapes soaking in their own juice in a steel tank. Photo: © Karen via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-2.0]

Ever have a wine that is so grippy and drying on your mouth that you feel it from the back of your tongue all the way to the front of your gums? That’s a lot of tannins. Probably too tannic, unless you are into that sort of thing. Most people aren’t. But hey, if that’s what you like, own it.

So what do tannins do?
Tannins are part of the structure of a wine, and help provide body and weight. Without them, your wine would feel watery and not have much oomph in your mouth.

Where do tannins come from?
Tannins typically come from contact with the grape skins during the winemaking process. Generally speaking, the more time the pressed grape juice spends soaking with the grape skins, seeds and other vegetal parts of the grape, the more the tannins. And some grapes naturally tend to have more tannins than others. That’s why Cabernet Sauvignon or Nebbiolo are usually more more full-bodied and tannic than Pinot Noir or Gamay (the grape of Beaujolais).

Pressed Nebbiolo grapes on the surface of a vat of press juice. The strainer pressed into the cap shows the juice about to ferment into wine.

Pressed Nebbiolo grapes on the surface of a vat of press juice. The strainer pressed into the cap shows the juice about to ferment into wine.Photo: © Steve Shaffer via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-2.0]

Tannins may also come from aging in oak barrels, which can impart wood tannins and are often accompanied with vanilla, woody or toasty flavors. Tannins can also have green flavors from under-ripe grapes, or be rich and ripe from ripe grapes. So there is a whole world of tannins out there.

What good is knowing about tannins?
Its all about getting to know what you like and being able to describe your taste. Don’t like big, powerful wines? No worries. You are probably just not that into tannins. Love them? Then bring it on with a monster Cab. When you are next out deciding what wine to get, you may find that talking to restaurant staff or the folks at your local wine shop about tannins can help you describe what you are looking for.

About Author

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Justin is a Co-Founder of Vino247 and has been a wine professional for more than 12 years. He has a background in filmmaking, print and web publishing. But his passion for wine led him to move professionally to the wine world. First at one of the top retailers in the US, where he cut his teeth learning the wine business, honing his palate and writing about wine. Later he co-founded importer Spanish-Wine-Exclusives. He is also a regular taster on Wine & Spirits Magazine’s industry tasting panel.

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