Sometimes It's Good to Show Up Late
Tannins are one of wine's basic building blocks. They give red wines structure and the ability to age. In wine tasting parlance, they can be supple, silky, velvety, soft, ripe or sweet. They can also be aggressive, chewy, harsh, green, angular or searing. Rustic if we like them, coarse if we don't. Tannins are fickle things.
We cannot smell or taste tannins, but we can feel them. If you've ever let your tea steep too long, you've felt their astringent, drying effect on your palate and mouth. They make your teeth itch. In big red wines, good tannins -- the supple, ripe type -- creep up at the finish just as the fruit fades and tickle your teeth with a pleasant caress that reminds you there is more in the bottle. Such wines are said to have "grip." Aggressive tannins are like a sucker punch to the mouth: They leave the wine tasting bitter.
That's why tannin management is extremely important in making red wines and why we as consumers can tell from the way tannins express themselves whether a red wine is well made.
Why only red wines? Tannins are chemical compounds that appear primarily in the skins, stems and seeds of grapes. White wines generally are made without those elements, so tannin is not much of a factor. (Wines gain tannin from oak barrels, however, so if your chardonnay tastes astringent, it could be a sign of clumsy aging.)
Some grape varieties contain more tannin than others: Cabernet sauvignon, syrah and nebbiolo, for instance, yield wines much more tannic than those made from merlot or pinot noir. High tannins are a traditional sign that a wine may age well, but because most wines are consumed on the day of purchase, winemakers use various techniques to soften tannin's effect. Those include removing stems from the grapes before pressing and halting pressing before the seeds get totally smooshed, to reduce the amount of tannins getting into the wine, and deliberately exposing the wine to small amounts of oxygen from time to time during fermentation and aging, which can moderate tannins already there.
We consumers can manage tannin, too, by remembering three simple words: Fat cuts tannin. Big red wine calls for big red meat.
And in contrast, a wine that is fruity and simple without much tannin may be a very pleasant quaff, but it most likely will not have enough body or structure to pair it with full-flavored foods. It also will not be a wine to stash away for a year or more, for without tannins, red wines can be flabby and fragile.
To gain a clearer idea of the various expressions of tannin, I enlisted the help of three professionals: sommeliers Nadine Brown of Charlie Palmer Steak and Mark Slater of Michel Richard Citronelle, and Robert Luskin, former co-owner of Bell Wine & Spirits in the District. Together we tasted 18 big red wines, an exercise that was rather like the "Charge of the Light Brigade." (Tannins to the left of them! Tannins to the right!) Enduring such a fusillade of tannin is something regular consumers never should experience while drinking a single bottle, but it's an exercise wine lovers enjoy.
As sommelier at a steak-themed restaurant, Brown has plenty of room for big tannic reds on her all-American wine list. But she seeks out less-tannic reds to offer by the glass. "People aren't usually eating steak when they sit at the bar for a glass of wine," she said.
Slater uses tannins as an indicator of how a wine might age in Citronelle's cellar. He knows that over time, tannins bond together into longer molecules that precipitate as sediment (in winespeak, they "polymerize"), leaving the wine softer in texture and allowing its secondary flavors to shine. "There has to be a balance between tannin and fruit, but if the tannins are noticeable, I at least have the capacity to put the wine away for a year or two," Slater said.
Luskin said he focused on how the tannins and fruit would interact when considering what wine to recommend to a customer at his store. "If there's enough fruit upfront so the tannins smooth out and only emerge at the finish, we'd say you could age the wine for a few years, or even longer," he said. "California cabernets tend to have lots of fruit that cover the tannins, and these wines will go well with a big piece of steak. Some Old World wines don't have as much fruit, and the tannins will dominate."
So look for wines where tannins are almost an afterthought. You should notice them after you've evaluated the wine's other qualities. If those qualities are lacking and the tannins dominate, the wine is unbalanced; and if it doesn't taste good now, it won't taste good after several years in your cellar.