Tannins are naturally occurring compounds found in grape skins that eagerly soak up the saliva in our mouths. This results in a mouth-drying sensation similar to that after drinking a strong cup of tea. This characteristic is what makes red wine so refreshing.
However, rough-and-tumble tannins can be aggressive and unpleasant, especially in young wines from Bordeaux. As wine ages, the tannins soften, and their mouth-puckering astringency diminishes., This process leaves the wine deliciously soft and silky.
Whether you love them or loathe them, tannins are crucial to a good quality red wine. Without tannins, wine lacks texture and substance. Finding a red wine with tannin levels that you enjoy is crucial.
Pinot Noir has the least aggressive tannins, making it a great option for those who prefer a softer texture. Other wines with easy-going tannins include Merlot or Chianti from Italy.
Still not sure what tannins are? They can be an acquired taste. Luckily, there are a few ways to refine your palate.
To train your tongue to identify tannins, first try peeling the skin off an ordinary grape using your teeth. Chew on the grape skin and feel your mouth tissue shrivel up..
Grape seeds are an even stronger source of tannins, but they can be a challenge to chew. That’s why many winemakers go to great lengths to avoid breaking open the seeds when crushing grapes. It's no surprise that ancient winemaking involved stomping the grapes with the soft soles of our feet.
If chewing grape seeds doesn't sound appealing, try sloshing a cup of dark pu erh (普洱茶)tea in your mouth to get a sense of what tannins feel like.
Another way to train your tongue to recognize tannins is to taste a variety of different red wines. With each one, focus on the texture or “mouthfeel” you experience. After taking a sip, rub your tongue against the roof of your mouth and pay attention to the sensation. Is it gritty? Rough? Or does it feel like fine sand? By understanding and appreciating the unique characteristics of tannins, you can start to enjoy red wine in all its complexity.
Not a fan of intense tannins? There are several tricks to soften even the peskiest ones and make red wine more “drinkable.”
One approach is to be patient and wait for the tannins to mellow over time through the aging process. Alternatively, you can open the bottle a few hours before dinner, allowing oxygen to age the tannins and soften them. Pouring the wine into a decanter and swirling it around for a minute or two can help to expose the wine to more oxygen. This process can be repeated until the wine is satisfactorily softened.
Some producers use specialized winemaking techniques to tame tough tannins, making the wine easier and “friendlier” to drink. Australian winemakers are particularly good at toning down tannins.