This may not be quite as important as that eternal question that ponders our existence, but when it comes to understanding wine, this ranks way up there. This topic is examined and discussed by winemakers, viticulturists and gonzo wine snoids endlessly, but rarely is it completely understood by the most important element in the world of wine; the wine drinker. And the topic is… tannin.

I can almost guarantee you are familiar with tannin even if you are not aware of it. They are what make tea that has steeped too long bitter and astringent, they are what makes walnut skins drying in your mouth, they are what makes your mouth pucker up a bit if you chew on a popsicle stick too long; and they are absolutely crucial to wine.

First, a bit of the technical stuff. Tannin is one of many phenolic compounds, they exist in the skins, seeds and stems of grapes. They evolved because they act as an effective deterrent to birds and other animals because they are not all that pleasant to eat when grapes are not yet ripe; they’re a survival tool. But when the fruit is ripe they provide the backbone of a wine. They give red wine weight, chewiness and texture. They also have a role in white wine even though it is not as evident as they are less concentrated, tannin acts as an antioxidant. When tannins are young they are short chained molecules and over time they polymerize (grow) in to longer chained molecules and bind with oxygen dissolved in wine, helping to preserve the flavors and character of the wine.

Tannin actually has no identifiable flavor but as stated above adds a tactile element to wine. Short chained tannins are more aggressive on the palate, they feel rougher and harsher. As the molecules grow in size you sense this increased texture, they become smoother, richer and softer. Remember that tannin provides a physical sensation and not a flavor. Short chained tannins react with the inside of your mouth more completely and literally extract moisture from your mouth leaving you with what you may have experienced as that somewhat course and drying sensation, that almost “dusty” feeling. Because of their larger size, long chain tannins are unable to have the same effect, it is more like they glide over your mouth and add that wonderful body and texture. Your mouth really does feel the wine as smoother and richer.

And now for the best part, let’s talk food and wine. Not only do tannins interact with oxygen in a positive way, they also interact with proteins and fats. Next time you eat a nicely marbled grilled rib eye steak pay attention to how the tannin in your red wine seems less evident and the wine richer, and the fat in the meat becomes less heavy and oily and takes on a smoother texture. That is tannin at work. Same goes for cheese and oils, even beans and pasta. The tannin reacts in a manner with the fats and proteins enhancing the interaction of the food with the wine.

So next time you have a glass of your favorite red wine, Shady Lane of course, think about the tannin and get to know it a little better. It helps protect your wine allowing it to age more gracefully, it adds texture and richness to the wine, and it makes the dining experience better, what’s not to like?

We are posting this article on the blog page of our website so if you have any comments or questions regarding this topic please visit us there and join in the conversation, we’d love to hear from you.


Adam Satchwell Winemaker and General Manager, Shady Lane Cellars