Warm Up: Tannins

By Erin Scala

Aging wines to perfection is a mix of cold science and subjective art. Finding that “sweet spot” to open a special bottle can be a very personal decision, and when we nail it, a truly magical wine experience can unfold. But what exactly are we calibrating our palates to be tasting as wines age? What exactly is going on inside the bottle?

If we focus in on tannins, we find that our perception of tannins greatly affect how we perceive the texture of wine. Tannins feel differently based on what kind of tannins they are: hydrolyzable tannins usually from oak, or condensed tannins from seeds, stems, and skins. Tannins want to bond with things. As they move through wine they are constantly joining up with other molecules and breaking apart, joining and breaking, joining and breaking, in a long dance– a dance that can last decades. During some separations, they don’t always separate into the same components, so wine tannins are dynamic. Some join and separate as larger molecules. Others grow smaller. One thing is for certain though, the tannins in an aged bottle of wine are molecularly different than the tannins you’ll find in the wine as it goes into the bottle.

Though the specifics of tannin activity are still an emerging area of wine research (which, disclaimer: means that all our understanding of tannins could completely change in the next couple of years), current research suggests that the properties of tannins have to do with the “stickiness” of tannins (or the desire of the molecule to link up with other molecules and form bonds). When they are first released from the plant, they want to stick to all sorts of things, especially proteins, and when you try a highly tannic wine, it draws out the microscopic proteins in your saliva and binds to them. Tannins literally suck stuff right out of the moisture in your mouth by binding with it, and that creates the drying sensation you feel.

Tannins are part of plant defense mechanisms. If you are a random animal and you’re going about your day, and you take a big bite of a tannin-rich plant and a chemical reaction starts in your mouth and completely dries out your mouth from all the protein bonding happening, your first Darwinian reaction is to spit it out (unless you really, really like amaro).

As tannins have more and more time to stick and un-stick themselves to molecules, eventually, they will become a little less… sticky, as they form slightly stronger bonds with proteins, other molecules, and oxygen that slowly finds its way in through a porous closure.

The closest analogy I can think of in the visible world is like taking a post it note and sticking it and un-sticking it very fast. Eventually, it will pick up enough tiny pieces of dust to stop it from being sticky, and in the process, it may even rip into smaller pieces, or grow as it picks up detritus. But when you try to stick it to something at the end of this process, it will not stick. Just like a very old tannin that has had enough time to form stronger bonds and become less reactive. Aged tannins, essentially, become less reactive and less likely to initiate a chemical reaction with your saliva, so they feel “softer.” Aged tannins are still there… they just don’t want to dance with your spit.

But tannins don’t want you to feel sorry for them. As long as you’re not drinking that sagrantino right away, most tannins will live a long and happy social life, forming and breaking and reforming bonds with other molecules.

Keep listening to hear more from one winery’s winemaker who shepherds their tannins through long lives with plenty of interesting library releases…

About Erin Scala: Originally from Virginia’s wine country, Erin Scala’s earliest memories of wine include picking and crushing grapes as a child. Scala moved to Manhattan in 2008 and had fun working at PUBLIC, a one-Michelin star restaurant in Nolita, and their adjacent bar, The Daily. She was inspired by the restaurant’s Australian and New Zealand-focused wine list, and in 2013, was honored by Wine Enthusiast in their “40 Under 40” feature for the depth of her selections from the region. After a stint at The Musket Room, Erin moved to Charlottesville, Virginia to run the wine program at Fleurie Restaurant and Petit Pois Bistro. When she’s not working on a Warm Up for the podcast, Scala is off in search of a vineyard, drumming, or writing her blog www.Thinking-Drinking.com. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Image of crumpled Post-it note courtesy of Dreamstime.