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Great Estates Okanagan
January 5, 2019 | Great Estates Okanagan

What You Need to Know About Tannins

understanding tannins in wine cabernet sauvignon

Black Sage Vineyard Winemaker, Jason James, Explains Tannins

Everyone talks about tannins in wine but what are they?  And furthermore, why do we want them and why are they considered food's best friend? We take a stroll through the vines with Jason James, winemaker at Black Sage Vineyard, to find out more.

What are tannins?
Tannins are the mouthfeel that a wine imparts; there’s the flavour of the wine and then there’s the tactile element of it in your mouth. 

Tannins are a chemical compound which you find in other drinks too— tea is a good example as it gives you that ‘mouth drying’ feeling. A good way to understand tannins is to take a grape and eat just the skin—that chalky drying taste is the tannins! 

Why do we want tannins in wine?
Tannins help to give structure to the wine. They also help stabilize the colour as that beautiful red tone comes from the skins of the grapes. They play a couple of different roles but what they mostly do is hold the wine together. 

Do you get tannins in red and white wines?
Tannin levels in white wines are going to be very low compared to reds because when you make white wine you crush and press the grapes right away and you don’t ferment on the skins [because skins are removed before fermentation]. When you make red wine, you make it by fermenting with the skins and sometimes the seeds and stems too. With seeds and stems you get more aggressive tannins, so we don’t want to extract those too much, but we do want the tannins from the skin. 

What’s the difference between a red wine for sipping or one for pairing with food?
When it comes to choosing a wine for sipping, something that’s quite ‘big’ like a Cabernet Sauvignon maybe isn’t the best choice. If you just want to drink red wine without food look for lighter varietals such as Pinot Noir or a softer medium-bodied Merlot. Cabernet Franc can be a good choice because it has a nice structure but it’s not a huge wine. 

Think about your cellar, high tannin wines are good to age. What happens during aging is a chemical reaction. The tannins ‘polymerize’ which means that they become longer chains as they bind to each other and become softer and less bitter. That’s why you’ll hear people say that tannins have ‘integrated’ in an older wine.

Why do wines with tannins pair so well with food?
Big wines with a lot of tannins are good for pairing with foods because of how the tannins react with protein - you can bind up those tannins with your food so they’re not all in your mouth! 

It’s a chemical reaction. Tannins want to jump on to a protein, which without food would be the inside of your mouth and tongue, but when you add food it binds to that instead and the flavour softens. You’ll find that if you drink a softer wine, like Gamay Noir, with steak, it just gets overwhelmed. You need something bigger to pair with the food. 

How do Black Sage Vineyard wines work with food?
When I make wine, I go for something that will get both sides. My wines have that tannic structure, but we don’t extract every last drying tannin from the skin and seeds of the grape, so you can still drink it alone, but it will also pair nicely with steak or a chop. I like my wine to be versatile. 

What wine and food pairings do you like?
I really like to keep it simple with my wine and food. I do a lot of braised meat in the winter and you need a great wine to cook with. I’ll cook with a Black Sage Vineyard wine and serve food with it too, so you get a layered flavour. A lot of people think you shouldn’t cook with good wine, but you always should. Never cook with anything you wouldn’t drink! That’s a terrible idea – I don’t know where that myth came from.

Do you have a favourite?
I love to have our Merlot, it’s got a ton of fruit and that nice structure, the tannins are silky and there’s a lot of them but they’re not clunky or drying. I’m a big fan of my Cab Franc too – that’s another one where there’s more acidity to it but it has nice tannins. Black Sage Vineyard wines have matured; every year just seems to be better and more balanced. I’ve had enough time to work with them now and I know what I’m expecting and what they’ll develop in terms of tannins and flavour profiles. It’s really coming together!


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