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Tannins are naturally occurring compounds in wine that come from grape skins, seeds and stems. They provide texture and structure to a wine and can create a drying sensation in your mouth by binding with proteins in saliva.
They are something you feel as opposed to taste – think of the fuzzy and dry sensation you get from drinking oversteeped tea or strong black coffee. They provide grip and grit to full-bodied wines from cabernet sauvignon, nebbiolo, syrah and tannat, which are grape varieties with high tannin levels. To some, even the gentlest of tannins come across as astringent and horrible. People with tannin sensitivities tend to avoid tea, black coffee, chocolate and red wine.
These mouth-drying compounds are most found in red wines, which gain their pigment from prolonged maceration and fermentation with the grape skins and seeds during the winemaking process. White and rosé wines, which are made by minimizing contact with parts of the grape other than its juice, seldom show the bitter or drying sensation from tannin.
Depending on the grape variety being processed and the style of wine they seek to make, winemakers may minimize the amount of time in which the juice remains in contact with the skins. The longer you leave the juice on the grape skin, the deeper the colour of the finished wine and the higher the level of tannins extracted. Excessively high tannins can be reduced by different fining agents, which bond with large-sized tannins in the wine to add their removal.
Inexpensive red wines often have less tannin than more expensive wines for several reasons. Premium priced bottles are more likely to have been aged in oak – whether aged in oak barrels or in contact with chips or staves – which impart more tannin into the finished wine. Tannins derived from wood are different compounds than grape tannins, but still contribute an astringent edge to the finished wine as well as adding to its overall weight and mouthfeel. New barrels contribute the most wood tannins as well as obvious flavours, such as vanilla, cedar, chocolate, toast or smoke.
Wines to watch for that are not only low in tannins, but also delicious with a slight chill include barbera, dolcetto, gamay, grenache and pinot noir. I would also add Valpolicellas from Italy, which are made with a blend of grapes including corvina, and zinfandels from California as softer and smoother styles of red wine without the drying tug of tannin.