How many people do you know think that a giant chewy red is the soul mate to a lovely filet mignon?
(And how many glasses of water do they drink while trying to re-salivate their mouth while consuming this pairing?)
Tannin, and the sensorial experience of astringency, is the product of a protein loving compound predominately found in red wines. In fact, all phenolics in wines are tannins in one form or another, but the ones that we refer to are the tannins that bind with the protein in our saliva, creating a “dryness” on a varying scale. Basically, these tannins bind with our saliva and we swallow it, leaving behind a dry mouth (BTW, do NOT look into the swill bucket of a high tannin producing winery! The stringy weirdness in the bucket is a great example of tannin bonds but can quickly reduce your desire to sample more wine!)
Understanding the degree of tannins in a wine can be scientifically measured, however the experience of astringency is entirely dependent on the wine drinker. We all have different degrees “juiciness” in our mouths, and our tolerance of tannins is determined by genetics. I have a relatively dry mouth, and I find that harsh tannin in wine is not enjoyable and is a detriment to food flavors and experience. Many foods contain natural tannin as well as wines, and the pairing of steak with a big tannic red is often recommended for this reason. Red meats make us salivate! However, highly tannic reds can overtake a well prepared steak and simply dominate a meal via huge astringency and mouthfeel overload leaving tastebuds dead and the rest of the meal unrecognizable.
Another common idea about tannin is that tannins are necessary for aging wine. Of course, they are not. A look at ageable white wines, such as Roussanne and Chardonnay disputes this argument. Harsh tannin wines respond to aging well; the tannin bind with other components in wine and precipitate out, softening the wine over time. Aging wine is a delicate balance between tannin, acid, pH and storage, and a topic well worth exploring in another post!
The last misnomer about tannin is that a well “structured” wine is one huge in tannin. Structure is referring to presence in the palate, which is a component of mouthfeel. As a winemaker, I find predominantly tannin structured wines to overwhelm my palate. I prefer wines to have a balance of alcohol, acid and tannin and viscosity to provide structure, without deterring from the presence of fruit. Again, it is all about balance!
The next time you find a wine that feels good in your mouth, pay attention to it! Does it leave your mouth dry, or does the acid in the wine balance out the juiciness in your mouth? Does it refresh your tastebuds or deaden them? Cleanse the palate or require sips of water to return to balance? Again, it is all a matter of personal preference, and knowing which wines you enjoy will help you determine the style of wines you prefer!