Culinary Arts

Learn About Wine: What Are Tannins?

Written by MasterClass

Jan 25, 2019 • 5 min read

If you’re new to the world of wine, you might be unfamiliar with one of the most frequently used words: tannins. Tannins are essential elements in what makes wine special and distinctive—in what makes wine taste like wine—and learning about them is crucial to understanding and appreciating wine.

Tannins are among the least understood aspects of wine, and one of the most difficult to master, because they cannot be isolated and smelled or tasted. But you don’t need a doctorate in chemistry to comprehend what’s going on in that glass of wine. Understanding and recognizing tannins will take you a long way toward wine connoisseurship.

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What Are Tannins?

  • Origins. The word ‘tannin’ is centuries old, and derives from the process of using extracts from plants to cure leather—which is known as ‘tanning.’ Think ‘tann-in.’
  • Composition. Tannins are naturally occurring molecules (the technical word for these compounds is polyphenols). When grape skins, seeds and stems soak in juice, they release these tannins. The longer they soak, the more tannins they release.
  • Purpose. Plants have tannins to make themselves unfriendly to other creature. From an evolutionary standpoint, they exist to deter animals from consuming a plant’s fruit, leaves or seeds before the plant is ripe. Tannins are the plant equivalent of a porcupine’s quills or a beaver’s tail. The existence of tannins is bad news for non-human animals—it means there is less for them to eat—but it’s wonderful news for wine aficionados.
  • Climate. A warm climate produces hyper-ripe grapes, while a cooler climate contributes to grapes aging slower. The difference influences the types of tannins that are created. In warm Australia, for example, shiraz grapes are plentiful, with smooth, lush, rounded tannins. In the cooler climate of Bordeaux, France, meanwhile, cabernet grapes grow more slowly, producing more subtle tannins.

The Pros and Cons of Tannins

Scientific studies reinforce the health benefits of drinking wine (in moderation). However, some people still report experiencing negative side effects.

  • Pro: Antioxidants. Tannins don’t just protect the plants from animals—they act as natural antioxidant to protect the wine once the grapes are harvested and produced. This is actually one reason why certain red wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, age so well. Antioxidants have health benefits, which is one reason red wine has been found to boost the human immune system and even improve cardiovascular health. If you’re looking to wine for health benefits, stick with red.
  • Cons: Headaches. Some people get headaches from tannins, even in small doses. The best way to determine if you’re susceptible to headaches from tannins is to sample other substances that also contain tannins:
    • Dark chocolate
    • Apple juice
    • Cinnamon
    • Walnuts
    • Almonds
    • Peanuts
    • Strong black tea
    • If you find that chocolate, tea, and red wine all give you headaches, stick to white wine or rosé and put aside the red.

How Do Tannins Affect Wine?

Understanding tannins isn’t just a matter of comprehending how wine is made. Tannins are deeply connected to the experience of tasting wine, too.

Tannins have an effect on the following seven elements of winemaking and wine tasting:

  1. Taste. Most liquids aren’t considered “dry,” however dryness, astringency, and bitterness are common to wine. Tannins are responsible for those unique sensations—tannins, not acidity, are what make wine wine. The drier your mouth is after tasting a wine, the more tannins the drink contains. That instinct to pucker your lips after sipping some red wine—that’s the effect of tannins.
  2. Structure. When people talk about structure in a wine, they’re referring to the complete picture a wine builds on your palate. And a lot of the structure has to do with the textural impression the tannins create in your mouth, although the overall harmony between body, tannins, and acidity is also important.
  3. Texture. Also called “mouthfeel,” texture is about the way the wine feels in your mouth and throat. The main contributor to texture is tannin. Tannin may be velvety, silky, firm, or astringent.
  4. Quality. Ripe, well-judged tannins create a sense of structure and depth. Conversely, an overly tannic finish will dry the mouth out, leaving the consumer reaching for water.
  5. Age. Tannins act as a preservative. Winemakers sometimes overload a bottle of wine with tannins so it lasts longer, giving it a longer shelf life. Tannins often become more subtle as they age, which is why aged wines are often coveted—and expensive.
  6. Strength. Many fans of wine believe that a little tannin goes a long way. When people speak of letting wine breathe, they mean that air can dilute tannins, making them smoother and understated instead of bold or even overwhelming.
  7. Balance. The ideal wine features balance, where acid, tannin, and fruit are all in harmony. An unbalanced wine is one where one element, like tannin, acidity, or alcohol, is higher than the others in a distracting or unpleasant way.

Can You Remove Tannins From Wine?

Tannins can be removed from wine through a process called fining. Fining a wine is rarely done, except in these cases:

  • If a wine is thought to be too astringent—containing too many or too strong tannins—manufacturers can remove the tannins creating these problems.
  • If a wine seems too bitter to a winemaker, the winemaker can balance out the body of the wine by removing certain tannins and leaving others in.
  • If a wine has too many proteins, a winemaker may choose to fine the tannins out to reduce or prevent cloudiness

What Wines Don’t Have Tannins?

Most white wines are fermented without their own skins, making them much less tannic—that’s why white wine is less dry than red wine. There are a few exceptions—some white wines might be more strongly tannic if they were kept in wooden barrels. That’s the case with chardonnay, for instance)

And while red wines usually feature tannins, there are some reds that are more tannic, and others that are less.

High Tannin Red Wines

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Monastrell
  • Montepulciano
  • Nebbiolo
  • Petit Verdot
  • Petite Sirah
  • Sangiovese
  • Shiraz

Low Tannin Red Wines

  • Barbera
  • Gamay
  • German Riesling
  • Grenache
  • Zinfandel/Primitivo
  • Pinot Noir
  • Tempranillo