jamie goode's wine blog: Wrestling with tannins

Friday, October 23, 2009

Wrestling with tannins

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a strong interest in the language of wine. I find it fascinating that in the wine trade we frequently share our own private, conscious experiences of specific wines with others.

This, of course, requires that we develop a vocabulary for describing the taste and smell of wine (although I do know of a colleague whose tasting notes are embellished with a small graphic showing the ‘shape’ of the wine). It’s actually remarkably difficult to translate flavour perception into words in a way that is meaningful to others. Frequently, we achieve this by means of a code language, learnt through tasting with others in a structured manner. Part of wine education is, I suspect, learning this code.

In this codified language, the term ‘tannin’ crops up on a regular basis. Indeed, it’s probably the most common descriptor in tasting notes of red wines. Tannins can be soft, silky, smooth, harsh, green, velvety, coarse, rustic, fine-grained and even ‘filigree’. By using the term ‘tannin’, which is actually a chemical term, albeit an imprecisely defined one, tasters are making an assumption about the chemical entity that is causing this particular aspect of flavour perception.

However, I strongly suspect that most of the tasters using this term only have a vague understanding of what tannins are in a chemical sense. Do the many varieties of tannin described by tasters correspond with chemical realities? Or is this an example of a code in which the chemical term is merely borrowed?

One question that we should probably address is whether the link between perception and chemistry is important. Does it matter that tasters use chemical terms without these corresponding to what is occurring in the wine?

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At 3:20 AM, Blogger The Wine Mule said...

All I know is that if there is a technical question about tannins, the guy who knows the answer is probably Alejandro Sejanovich at Catena. Those Mendoza guys, if you let them, they will talk all day about physiologically ripe tannins, polymerization, and beta carotene.

At 7:06 AM, Anonymous Alex Lake said...

I'd say that a proper TN should ideally make no assumptions - just describe what's there - but it can be hard to avoid the "t" word and it's a good indicator of prejudice in the writer!

At 8:34 AM, Blogger DermotMW said...

Hi Jamie,
I think one of the things that bugs me is the strange descriptions used, e.g. green tannins or ripe tannins.

If we mean and chain f molecules, some of which are of a size sufficient to react with proteins in saliva and cause partial dehydration of the palate how can we ascribe "greeness" or "ripeness" to them?

I am of the belief that when people state green tannins, they are describing a wine from grapes with low ripeness levels, with a degree of condensed skin tannins causing an astringency on the palate combined with the methoxypyrazine characters of the unripe grape. When people talk of ripe tannins, I think they mean a wine with larger chain tannins but, crucially, with lots of ripe fruit which softens the whole palate experience.

If I were going to do a PhD in wine it would either be about the language of tannins or yeasts. I did hear, recently, that Davis had tested a load of tasters (including winemakers) in re tannin descriptors and found such wide variation in responses that the conclusion was no-one really knows what they're talking about in re tannins. I wish I could remember who told me that! It might have been one f our fellow LATs.

At 8:35 AM, Blogger DermotMW said...

That opening line should read " a chain of molecules, ..." - It was a ltae night last night LOL

At 2:27 PM, Blogger Camoranesi said...

Just a query in regards the use of the expression 'green' in relation to tannin - when applied correctly, isn't that related to unripe seed tannin from seeds which are, err, green?

At 12:31 AM, Blogger DermotMW said...

I don't think "green" can apply to seed tannins as I'm not sure that they are large enough to sense. Almost all the tannins sensed in wine are from the skin - wood tannins cannot be sensed as the chains are too short and, during maturation, these tannins combine with larger, condensed tannins from skins. Having bitten into seeds they are bitter but not tannic, in my experience.


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