Understanding Tannin

Tannins are complex chemical compounds derived from phenolic acid (sometimes known as tannic acids). They are phenolic compounds and can be found in many plants from all climates.

Writers don’t understand Tannin

When I was a winemaker in California, I was asked the first question by a customer. This question was repeated many times when I started to teach wine classes in 2001.

Even though it wasn’t correct, I gave a Proforma answer. It was not something I felt great about, but it isn’t easy to translate the science behind Tannin into a simple answer. This was serious week sauce.

What Wine Publications Do Wrong?

All major wine publications have fallen for the same trap. The first page of results for “What’s tannin” contains multiple articles containing incomplete and sometimes incorrect information.

This is not intentional. The majority of wine writers come from liberal arts backgrounds. Only a handful of wine writers have a strong background in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

What is Tannin, and how does it work in wine?

Today, I have a reply that many sommeliers will be shocked to hear, but science is on our side. All the answers to “What’s tannin?” are too simple or complex. The truth is that it is very easy.

Red wine does not contain tannins

Grapes contain tannins just like other plants. Bitterness is guaranteed if you chew any stem, leaf, or seed. This is not surprising. Take a cup of tea. Drink tea? All of them have bitter compounds. Tannins are one of those bitter compounds.

Condensed Tannins = Fermentation + Tannins

Fermentation is the main difference between wine and grapes. This changes everything. The grape fibers are almost all destroyed by yeast and bacteria. The process leaves little to no trace, except for one acid (tartaric acid).

These are three important compounds in this vat full of boozy destruction: proteins, skin pigments, and seed tannins. They form chains and are attracted to one another. This three-way love affair results in a new molecule, the condensed Tannin.

Condensed Tannin is a very distinct form of Tannin. It should probably have a completely different name to avoid any confusion. Condensed tannins can be confusing as different Tannin, pigment, and protein combinations can create very different results.

What should we be talking about instead of Tannin?

We are referring to bitterness at the end of it all. Condensed tannins add a new dimension to the wine. Red wine tastes more like plums and cherry than grapefruit and apples. They make oak barrel wines taste like chocolate. They can do many cool things.

In my youth, Tannin was the bitterness of red wine. It’s not correct, and it’s not the question I answer anymore. I ask people, “What is tannin?” and they ask me if they like red wine.

The questioner doesn’t usually care about tannins. They want to find out why they don’t like red wine as much as their friends. This question has a completely different answer and is one that most wine educators and sommeliers can effectively answer.

And if your friendly neighborhood sommelier can’t answer that question, they need to find another profession.

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