What is a tannin and why are people obsessed with the tannins in wine? Before I knew anything about wine, tannins confused me more than everything else about wine combined. Is it a flavor? Do they add it to the wine? Is it good or bad?
Tannin is a compound naturally found in plants (like, you know, red grapes). Tannins are bitter, often described as astringent or dry. If a wine leaves you puckering, it’s a sure bet that it’s tannic. You know that puckery feeling you get when you drink oversteeped tea? That’s tannin.
You get tannin in wine from the grape skins. Some grapes are naturally more tannic than others; Cabernet Sauvignon has a very thick skin, which means it grows well in most climates, but also that it has a lot of tannin. Pinot Noir, on the other hand, has very thin skin, which means it’s delicate to grow and has very little tannin. Aging wine in oak barrels also imparts tannins; the longer you have wine in oak, the more tannic the wine.
It can be both good and bad. Overly tannic wine is not a pleasant taste or sensation, but it mellows out over time. Puckery tannins become soft and smooth as the wine ages in bottle, leaving it with fully body, structure, and a long finish. Wines with little tannin can be weak and flavorless. In short, you want a wine with enough tannin to give the wine structure or allow it to age, but not so much that it makes you look like you just bit into a lemon.
A handy infographic for you! This is a very rough guide of wines with the most to least tannins; it will vary because of climate, regions, aging, etc, but this is a little shortcut for those of you new to wine.