Where does Tannin come from?

Where does tannin come from? That was a debate my wife was asked to adjudicate on recently; one person said that it came from the grape skins, another was equally sure it came from wooden barrels. As you might expect, Hilary knew the answer and, fortunately in this case, was able to tell both protagonists that they were correct.

Let me first define what we mean by tannin: you can’t actually taste it but it’s that drying or astringent sensation you feel on your gums and the sides of your mouth when you drink many red wines, especially young reds made with grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz. Much more rarely, you might also find some tannin on a rosé and even on the odd white – I’m thinking mainly of the current fashion for ‘orange’ wines – white wines made in the same way as a red. And you get the same feeling if you drink tea that has been left brewing too long.

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The reason you find tannin in red wines more than in whites is down to the different way the wines are made; reds are fermented with the juice in contact with the skins in order to extract colour and, as a by-product, the process extracts  tannins from the grape-skins too. For most white wines, on the other hand, the juice is normally separated from the skins before the fermentation takes place and so tannin from that source is left behind.

Ch Dauzac barrel

But, as one of the people in the discussion said, tannin can also come from wooden barrels. Not all wines are made or stored in wood but, if they are, and especially if the wood is new, then you might find a similar, drying tannin sensation (although many people simply regard it as part of the oaky taste). How to distinguish between grape-skin tannins and wood tannins in a red wine is one for the experts and, unless you’re particularly sensitive to them, isn’t something that most people need worry about.

But, if you open a wine and find it is too tannic for your taste, simply decant it and leave it in contact with air for as long as you can before drinking it. And, let it accompany protein-rich food. These 2 ‘tricks’ will help and make the tannins appear ‘softer’ and the wine will seem more harmonious and attractive.

The reasons behind the differences in taste between one type of wine and another are covered in more detail in a piece I’ve written for the Stoke Lodge website.  Go to http://www.bristolcourses.com and type in ‘Wine’ in the key words box and follow the link.

The Meaning of ‘Oak-Aged’

A couple of weeks ago in Bristol Wine Blog I wrote about an oak-aged wine. It seems I didn’t explain the term ‘oak-aged’ or say how can you tell if a wine tastes ‘oaky’?

The words relate to the fact that wine has to be made and stored in some kind of container before it is bottled ready for sale and the material used for that container will have an effect on how the wine tastes. Fermentation and storage tanks will often be made of stainless steel, which is inert, that is it has no flavour of its own.

Ch Dauzac Fermentation tanksWines made and stored in such tanks (pictured above) will taste fresh and clean and fruit flavours are most likely to predominate; typically, we might talk about the wine tasting of citrus or melon or tropical fruits. The same would be true of other neutral containers such as those made from concrete or glass.

Ch Dauzac barrelOn the other hand, the winemaker might use wooden barrels – large as above or much smaller – (usually made of oak, but other woods like chestnut can sometimes be used) to ferment or store the wine in. Wood is not inert – the grain is very slightly porous; not enough to allow the liquid to seep out, but sufficient to allow tiny amounts of air in. This air softens the wine slightly and changes its character. Also, depending on the age of the barrel, the wood itself may have a flavour which is transmitted into the wine; this is the ‘oaky’ taste I referred to and can include flavours like cinnamon, cloves or other spices, vanilla, toast, cigar boxes or pencil shavings. In all these cases, the flavours of the fruit should still be there but they will no longer be the principal taste.

If you want to sample the difference, I suggest you get 2 bottles of Rioja – 1 labelled Gran Reserva and the other without the words Crianza or Reserva on the label and taste them alongside one another. The Gran Reserva will be the oaky one.

Final question: is an oaked wine better than an unoaked? It all depends on your palate but, for me, there is a place for both.

 

 

 

The ‘Body’ of a Wine

‘Can you bring along a nice medium-bodied red?’ some good friends of ours suggested when we were going to dinner with them.  That gave me a good steer as to what was wanted but it is interesting that the word ‘body’ was used as it’s one of those wine words that you hear quite a lot but, in my experience, is not always properly understood.  (Our friends clearly did!)

For me, the easiest way to explain it is to contrast drinking water with taking a spoonful of honey or syrup.  The water doesn’t really have any weight in your mouth – if it was a wine, you’d call it ‘light-bodied’ – whereas the honey or syrup seems much denser and heavier – typical of a ‘full-bodied’ wine.  And, of course, wine isn’t just light- or full-bodied, there’s a whole spectrum in between and, in fact, most wines could be described as medium-bodied.

What determines the body of a wine?  The main factor is alcohol and so wines from hotter regions, where the grapes will become riper (and therefore potentially produce more alcohol), are more likely to be fuller bodied than those from cooler climates.  As an example, many German whites have only 8 or 9% alcohol and are some of the lightest bodied wines of all; most English wines, like the Sharpham, below, are similarly lacking in weight.  But you can have light bodied reds, too: most Beaujolais, Bardolino and Valpolicella fall into this category. 

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At the other end of the scale, there are a few full bodied whites – some Rhones and Australian and Californian Chardonnays – but many more reds: Zinfandels, Italian Amarones and Châteauneuf du Pape all often weigh in around 15% alcohol or even more, and are likely to be decidedly full bodied. 

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Why is all this important?  In trying to pair food with wine, you don’t want the food overpowering the wine nor vice versa.  So, with a delicate, subtly flavoured dish, choose something at the lighter end of the range – it can be white, red or rosé – while for a more robust dish, a fuller bodied example will probably work better.

There’s a lot more to say about food and wine pairing (some other time, perhaps) but thinking about the body of the wine is a first step.

A Wine Worth Keeping

How long should you keep a bottle of wine before drinking it?  That’s one of those ‘how long is a piece of string?’ questions!  Of course, it depends on the wine – most whites are probably best within a year of purchase, most reds within 2 years – but also on your personal taste.  A friend of ours thinks we drink our wine too young, whereas I think that many of the bottles he opens are passed their peak.  We’ll never agree, but that’s the beauty of wine.

And, although I said that most wines are best within a year or two, there are definitely some – mainly reds, but also quite a few whites – that will only improve for keeping.  Which ones?  Try looking at the back label which may recommend drinking dates.  Otherwise ask a reliable wine merchant or you may be able to check on-line (but always bear in mind what I said above about personal preferences).

I’ve had a bottle of Meerlust Red 2011 from Stellenbosch in South Africa sitting quietly in a wine rack under the stairs for at least a couple of years and, as the label recommended drinking within 8 years of the vintage, I decided recently that now was the time to uncork it – especially as we were having some good friends to dinner who I knew would appreciate it (another important consideration when thinking when to open a bottle!)meerlust-red

This lovely, rich and flavoursome blend of 4 of the Bordeaux varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) was, most definitely, drinking well now.  Even so, I took the precaution of decanting a couple of hours in advance to let a little air finish the process.  The ripe, red fruit flavours were beautifully vibrant and, despite the warmth of Stellenbosch being reflected in 14% alcohol, there was no burn to the wine, all was nicely in balance.

My one regret: it’s the only bottle of this wine I bought and I can see it still drinking well five or more years from now – for my taste, that target of 2019 shown on the back label looks a bit conservative.