What Are Tannins in Wine Tasting?

Tannins Contribute to the Dryness of Red Wines

Women tasting wine with friends
Webphotographeer/E+/Getty Images

Wine aficionados talk a lot about tannins, but what are they? Tannins are an important descriptor for wine tastings and it basically refers to the dryness, bitterness, and astringency of a wine. It is most often associated with red wine and is the opposite of the sweetness found in many white wines.

By no means are tannins a good or bad thing. Some varietals of red wines are known and loved for their high tannin levels. Yet, not every wine drinker enjoys a dry mouth. This makes understanding tannins and how they affect the taste of the wine key to choosing a wine that's right for you.

What Are Tannins?

Tannins are, essentially, a wine's pucker power. It is generally more dominant in younger red wines that haven't had the time to soften up with age. A wine with high tannins can be described as bitter and astringent.

Tannins are derived from the skins, stems, and seeds of the grapes used to produce the wine. Technically, they are plant-derived polyphenols. Red wines are in contact with the grape for a longer period, which is why they tend to have higher tannins.

Tannins can also come from the oak barrels used for many aged wines. These wood tannins are absorbed into the wine and, in the case of oak, vanilla flavors become apparent in the wine.

  • Tannins are often described as the textural component that "dries the mouth" when drinking red wines.
  • Tannins are largely responsible for giving red wines a defined structure or "body." It is similar to how a skeleton provides support for the body and allows movement.
  • Tannins are often one reason why it is recommended that you allow a wine to "breathe" or aerate before drinking it. The air softens the tannins, particularly in young red wines.
  • Tannins are also found in teas, nuts like walnuts and almonds, dark chocolate, spices like cinnamon and clove, a few fruits like pomegranate and grapes, quince, and red beans.

Taste Tannins for Yourself

Tannins can be difficult to describe, and it's best to discover the taste for yourself. There's an easy way to do so and it involves a cup of tea. This simple test will allow you to identify tannins without the complications of a wine's other components.

  1. Brew a very strong cup of black tea.
  2. Take a sip before adding any cream or sugar to soften it up. The drying, astringent compound you taste is tannin.

With this experience, you should be able to return to a red wine tasting and have the ability to recognize the tannins.

High Tannin Red Wines

Many styles of wine are considered to be high in tannins. Quite often, this coincides with what is described as "full-bodied" red wines. While one wine of the same varietal can be more or less tannic due to its production, you will generally find that these are high tannin wines:

Beyond the taste, high tannin wines tend to bottle age better than those that have fewer tannins. Go ahead and save that Cab for a few years!

Low Tannin Red Wines

If you're just beginning to explore red wines and want to ease into tannins, there are some good sweeter wines that you will want to look at. It takes some time to develop a palate for tannic wines and some people never really get there. That doesn't mean you have to stick with white wine, though. Instead, try these lower tannin red wines: