What are Wine Tannins? 12 FAQ about Tannins Answered

When people describe wine they use a lot of words we don’t use every day. You’ve probably heard someone describe a wine as tannic or grippy or silky. What they are talking about are the tannins. But what are wine tannins? Tannins are a crucial component of red wine. They add body, structure, and texture. They benefit the wine and the wine drinker! Are there tannins in white wine? Are tannins good for you? How do you describe tannins? Read on.

Glass of red wine
Tannins are found mostly in red wine

Here’s the technical definition:

Tannins are a class of astringent, polyphenolic biomolecules that bind to and precipitate proteins and various other organic compounds including amino acids and alkaloids. 

Wikipedia

Huh?

Let’s unravel that word salad together into actual useful information.  

Grape bunch of Mourvedre grapes
Tannins come from the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes.

Where do wine tannins come from?

Tannins are found in the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes. Since red grapes spend their fermentation period with the skins, tannins are almost exclusively found in red wines. Wines also get tannins from oak ageing so you may detect tannins in oaked white wines as well.

Skin tannins are the softest most desirable tannins. Seed tannins are quite bitter. Stem tannins are harsh AF and never get better. Oak tannins are mild and oak ageing actually helps mellow out the other tannins in wine. Tannins are common in food and plants. Tree bark, black and green tea, apple skins, and bitter chocolate all contain tannins.

Are there tannins in white wine?

You may come across a white wine that you swear is tannic. It is rare but totally possible. Truth is all wines have tannin but white wine tannins are nearly undetectable and negligible to mention. White wines that are aged in oak barrels can pick up some tannins from the wood. Other times tannins a white grape just inherently has some tannins. A great example is Assyrtiko from Santorini.

So how do I identify tannins in wine?

The astringency and drying you feel when you drink red wine are the tannins. You feel tannins strongest in your cheeks and tongue. You’ll feel your saliva drying out and taste a bitter flavor. A good way to isolate the feeling of tannin is by identifying tannins in tea. Let the tea steep for much longer than you normally would. Take a sip. Did it give you a woody taste and suck out all your saliva? Those are what tannins feel like. 

Well, that sounds kind of awful, so why would anyone want tannins? They help the wine!

Cup of tea and bar of chocolate
Tea and chocolate also contain tannins

How do tannins help wine?

Tannins contribute to the body of a wine. Wines that are full bodied like Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec have high amounts of tannins. Tannins are one of the structural pillars of red wine along with acid and alcohol. These come together to determine the texture and mouthfeel of wine.

Tannins are the reason red wines can age. Tannins contain antioxidants. Oxygen is wine’s arch nemesis. The more tannins there are in a wine the longer a wine can fend off oxygen, therefore, the longer the wine can age gracefully. Tannins also contain resveratrol, the antioxidant that makes wine good for your health. 

What are wine tannins good for?

Tannins are the single healthiest part of wine. Tannin contain polyphenols and antioxidants which are good for your heart and your brain. Basically, just like they do with wine, they prevent oxidation of your cells. Oxidation is essentially how we age so it’s a bit of a stretch but wine can extend your life, in moderation, of course. But you know, I’m not a doctor.

Huarpe 2018 Taymente Malbec – Red Wine
Barrel room at Dourakis Winery
Oak ageing adds some tannins to wine. (Barrels at Dourakis Winery)

How do you describe tannins in wine?

There are many ways to describe tannins. The words used depend on the intensity of the tannins and their development. Words like harsh, bitter, rough, or coarse imply the wine is very tannic. To describe more developed and integrated tannins, use words like smooth, plush, velvety, and silky. “Green” and “under ripe” would describe tannins that have not evolved and likely stem from grapes harvested too soon. 

How to pair food with tannic wines?

The fastest and easiest way to tame tannins is by pairing the right food with tannic wine. Foods that are high in protein and fat will neutralize the tannins. Like that Wikipedia quote says, tannin binds with protein. There is protein in your saliva. If tannins find a better protein like beef, lamb, or cheese, they’ll bind to that instead of your cheeks and tongue. 

Steak and red wine

What happens to tannins over time?

Tannins also mellow out with time. At some point, oxygen wins and the tannins begin to break down. The tannins bind with the pigment in red wine and fall out of solution in the form of sediment. To remove sediment, old bottles of red wine should be decanted. Sediment is harmless but texturally unpleasant. 

Sediment at the bottom of a glass
Sediment is formed when tannin and pigment combine and fall out of solution.

Do you like tannins? Prefer wines without? More questions? Let me know in the comments.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do tannins in wine taste like?

Tannins can taste bitter and astringent, like your mouth is drying out. Woody is another way to describe what tannins taste like. Some people describe the affects of tannins like their tongue is furry.

Are tannins in wine bad for you?

Short answer, nope. Tannins are actually a polyphenol which is good for your health. Now there’s a chance that you could be allergic to tannins, in which case, that’s not good.

What wines have the most tannins?

Grapes that have the thickest skin will have the highest tannins. Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre, Syrah, Sagrantino, and Nebbiolo are very high in tannins.

What are wine tannins? Are they good for you? What do they taste like?

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