We'll Drink to That: Talkin' tannins
Wine photos by Bryan Calandrelli
Soft, firm, round, silky, and seductive are just some of the many words used to describe tannins, which come from the skin, seeds, and stems of the grapes extracted during fermentation. Rather than color or alcohol, tannins play an undeniably significant role in judging a wine’s complexity, length, ageability, and overall quality—and unlike alcohol or sugar percentages printed on a wine label, there isn’t a simple way to indicate the intensity or prominence of tannins in wine.
When the coldest months of the year are upon us, wine should become something more than just drinkable, refreshing, easy, or supple. You’ve had the whole year to drink wines like merlot and inexpensive pinot noir, both of which are eager to please. Winter is the time to give yourself to the wine and allow those invisible, odorless, colorless tannins to take the lead.
Tannic wines can be quite polarizing. Not everyone craves the tactile drying sensation—which flirts with actual bitterness—they provide. Some people seek tannic wines out, especially for the purpose of pairing them with red meats or other foods high in protein, while others shun these wines, believing (incorrectly) that tannins are to blame for their headaches.
To deepen this mystery, as a wine ages, its tannins actually soften. So a wine that might have seemed astringent when you first tried it may be unrecognizably smoother with just a few years of age. But tannins aren’t all necessarily so dry—and they surely aren’t one size fits all. The inability to tangibly classify the intensity of tannins in a given wine leaves plenty of room for wine marketers, writers, and critics to get creative with the language.
Young wines may have their tannins described as bitter, harsh, or coarse. Wines that have benefited from some aging may have their tannins described as velvety, silky, or seamless. Descriptors can also indicate the overall ripeness of the grapes that yielded the wine, with words like green, lush, or sweet. People don’t hesitate to mention their size and texture whether they’re huge, powdery, grainy, or sandy. Did you know tannins could also be aggressive, affirmative, or even generous?
To a certain extent, some grapes are inherently more tannic than others. While the location of a vineyard or the specific vintage may play a role in how tannic a wine becomes, the most important human factor is the winemaker’s influence during the fermenting, aging, and cellaring of a wine. The most common grape variety most associated with tannins is cabernet sauvignon, but thanks to modern winemaking and its desire to soften wines for early consumption, we’re not really feeling the dryness of this variety outside of Bordeaux.
So it’s in the old world that we have to look— specifically Italy, where the nebbiolo grape produces fiercely tannic, age-worthy reds. The Piedmontese regions of Barolo and Barbaresco yield some of the most sought-after reds in the country; their rigid backbones of acid and tannin clear the way for decades in the most distinguished cellars in the world. Producers like Gaja, Domenico Clerico, and La Spinetta represent some of the best. But wines this formidable, powerful, and sinfully dark in nature have no respect for your wallet, so—like anything else that feels this good—they are wines that must be appreciated in moderation.
Luckily, there are many that fall outside these two historic regions that are still 100 percent nebbiolo—but lack the prestige and the demand of Barolo or Barbaresco. If you’re on a budget, look for nebbiolo from Langhe or d’Alba for less than $20. But if you must have Barolo, Silvio Grasso’s 2007 Barolo can be found for less than $35 locally and has everything you’d expect from the variety and region: chalky tannins with aromas of dried red fruit, tar, violets, truffles, and tea.
Tannat is another grape that takes no prisoners with its aggressively dry, rustic nature. A request of tannat at your local wine shop might earn you a journey down the path-less-traveled aisle to the wines of Uruguay, though the traditional home for tannat is southwest France in the AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) of Madiran.
In Madiran, tannat has the opportunity to blend with grapes like cabernet sauvignon or cabernet franc to provide a rigid tannic structure that doesn’t really even pretend to be drinkable for at least three years after bottling. Dark in color and high in alcohol, Madiran reds are not for the faint of heart. This is where a tannic wine purist can find some rustic satisfaction.
The South American examples from Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina tend to tone down tannat’s veracity with modern winemaking techniques of micro-oxygenation, new oak, and simple blending down. Their voluptuous nature rarely resembles the rustic reds of southwest France, so the best example of a true tannat wine is certainly Chateau Peyros Madiran 2006—a blend of tannat and cabernet franc—at $12. Its tannins border on chunky, even after having six years to mellow out.
If there were a speakeasy grape that is so far under the radar of tannic reds that you could call it a hipster wine for tannin hounds, it would have to be Greece’s xinomavro. If the “x” at the beginning of its name doesn’t fire up your expectations, its translation to “black acid” should prepare you for what’s to come.
Common descriptions of xinomavro range from rich to harsh to rigid. Its wines convey Greece’s familiar flavors—such as olives and dried tomatoes—among its red fruit tones of dried cherry and wild berry, but the combination of acidity and tannin requires xinomavro some time to settle. These wines demand food in their youth and boast complexity with age. They’re clearly reminiscent of the most structured Italian wines with comparisons ranging from brunello to nebbiolo.
Xinomavro is often described as one of the most intriguing grapes in Greece. Curious drinkers should look for the northern Greek region of Naoussa on the label and consider producers Boutari, Karyda, and Kir-Yianni in order to feel confident that they are getting some of the best examples of this unique variety. The bold yet powdery tannins and bright cherry fruit of Kir-Yiani’s $25 Ramnista from the 2008 vintage are graceful yet intriguingly forceful at the same time.
Bryan Calandrelli is a winemaker, filmmaker, and contributor to several publications.