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This blog started with a customer enquiry through my ‘Ask Alan’ platform. The customer was looking for ‘low or no tannin wines’.
As this customer’s problem can affect up to one in four wine drinkers, I thought it be to share this with you all!
"Tannin" is what makes your cheeks pucker when you take a mouthful - as it dries up the inside of your mouth. What is actually happening is that the tannins in the wine are binding with the proteins in your saliva – which then dries out your mouth. If you’re not sure what tannin feels like – chew on a teabag for 10 seconds – but make sure you have a glass of water to hand!
Tannin (a naturally occurring polyphenol) occurs naturally in all plant life – present in a variety of plants and foods as diverse as oak trees, rhubarb, tea, walnut, cranberry, cacao and, importantly for wine drinkers, grapes. Their job in plant life are as a defence mechanism – to prevent animals and birds from eating plant fruits or seeds before ripeness – thus ensuring that the plant can reach full maturity and seed its next generation.
Tannins in wine stem from four primary sources – skins, pips and stalks from the harvested bunches of grapes – and then the wine can pick up some tannin from the oak casks used for maturation.
At this point, I will caution that tannin in wine is not a bad thing – it’s not bad for your health, in fact, there is research that shows that wines with high polyphenols are actually good for us – being anti-oxidants they can slow down our ageing process. There is also no evidence that it’s got any cause of the frequent ‘wine headache’. It’s natural and helps with wine colour, texture, structure, weight and mouthfeel. It’s also essential if a winemaker wants his wine to mature well in bottle.
However, some, (as many as the one in four mentioned above), have a heightened sensitivity to bitterness and this group are commonly referred as ‘supertasters’ in the world of food and drink.
This heightened sensitivity means that tannin in wines is even more unpleasant and astringent to these people. I’ll suggest some grape varieties to avoid later.
There are some processes in winemaking that can increase the tannin content of wines – so I will try and give some tips below on how to stay away from high tannin wines.
Cogniscent that tannin in wine comes from the skins, pips and stalks – it’s best to stay away from the following:
- Whole bunch or whole cluster fermentation – this is when whole bunches of grapes are pressed and fermented together – rather than having the stalks removed before pressing.
- Hard/coarse pressing - obviously the harder you press the more tannins you are going to release into the grape juice from the skins/pips– so best go for gentle/soft pressing – thus releasing less tannin into the grape juice before fermentation.
- Also, stay away from long maceration - The longer the grape juice is in contact with the pomace (the grape solids left after pressing) – then the more tannin will be leached into the juice – so best to go for wines made from short maceration times.
Tasting notes that mention carbonic maceration, pigeage and remontage as winemaking processes are also helpful when searching out low tannin wines. These processes are all designed to extract colour and flavour whilst leaving harsh acids and hard tannins behind.
Maturation: The longer a wine spends in oak barrels, the softer the tannins from winemaking and fermentation become – but, against that, the longer a wine spends in barrel – the more tannin it will pick up from the wood – particularly if the barrels are new and first fill i.e. the more a barrel is used – the less tannin it will leach into the wine. So, best to go for wines that come from second and 3rd fill barrels for a lower tannin content. A small, new, first fill barrel will give wines with a higher tannin content than an old 4th/5th fill large barrel.
Generally, the warmer the climate – and the more commercial the wine style – the less tannins you will find. So warmer New World climates like Australia, South Africa and South America will generally deliver wines with lower tannin levels (but again there are always exceptions here too - note the varietals below!)
Before I go on to talk about specific grape varieties a generalisation. Small, thick and/or dark skinned varieties generally have higher tannin levels than thinner skinned, lighter coloured varieties. Some varieties are known to have high tannin levels and are best avoided if you want to escape high levels of bitterness and astringency.
Best stay away from
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Petite Sirah
And head towards
- Pinot Noir
In summary, some key tips below:
1) Alternate between wine and water
2) Drink more White/Rose – they generally have less tannins than red wines
3) Watch out for winemaking/maturation techniques – this can have a huge variation on tannin levels
4) Find your new, favourite grape varieties!