A wine guru once said that the difference between a very good red wine and a great wine was in the quality of the tannins. Whoa, quality of tannins? What was she on about?
While red wines contain acids giving crispness, alcohol providing roundness and fruity flavours, there is also a drying, mouth-puckering, textural quality. That’s due to tannins. You don’t really taste them, you sense them – they contribute to the feel of the wine in your mouth.
Tannins in red wine can be good – fine, soft, silky and velvety, just what you want to see in a fine wine. And tannins can be bad – coarse, harsh and bitter. Rough reds are rough because of their tannins. Whether tannins are good or bad depends on many factors.
Firstly, tannins come from the fruit that’s used to make the wine, from the skins, seeds and stems. The skins of some grape varieties are naturally rich in tannins whereas others, like pinot noir, are low in tannins. Vintage conditions and vineyard practices have an effect too. If there is unripe fruit in the harvest the tannins are more likely to be aggressive and astringent.
How the winemaker handles the fruit is important too. Once the initial fermentation is complete the winemaker may whip the wine off the skins, limiting the extraction of tannin which leaves the wine fresh and fruity, albeit a bit simple. Alternatively, the wine may be left to soak on the skins after the fermentation. This not only extracts more tannin building the structure of the wine but it also changes the nature of the tannin, making it softer. New oak barrels used to mature red wine can also contribute tannins to the wine.
Tannins are important as they affect the way a red wine ages and this is really where the quality argument comes into play. If a young red wine has plenty of fine tannins it should age well, the texture gradually softening and becoming plush and silky. All the time the tannins, which are antioxidants, are helping to preserve the wine allowing slow evolution of the wine in the bottle. This is where the magic happens, the aged red wine not just tasting good but also feeling good in the mouth. Oh so satisfying.
Unfortunately, if the tannins in a red wine are tough and bitter when it is young it’s likely that they will be tough and bitter when the wine is old. There is little joy to be had from cellaring rough reds.