From Oenophile Tom Black
Sometimes I feel like Nashville's Forrest Gump. Always stumbling into one great wine adventure after another. Recently a large wine collector from San Francisco (Bill Shea) took 32 people at his expense to Paris for his 50th birthday. I was one of the lucky guests. Our meals were fantastic. We had one night at George V (a 3-star restaurant), one night at La Tour d'Argent (a 3-star restaurant) and one night on a barge on the Seine River with an American chef Bill had flown over. The first night Bill opened a magnum (2 regular bottles in one) of 1996 Screaming Eagle. Screaming Eagle is the most expensive wine made in America. This was a $5,000 bottle of wine. Frankly, it wasn't worth $5,000 but everyone commented on the soft, round tannins in such a young cabernet wine. But, as the French say, "Only the first bottle is expensive."
So what were these tannins we were tasting and talking about? These are the same tannins that make our mouth pucker when we drink tea. They are especially noticeable in young red wines.
Tannin is a preservative. It is essential in red wine just as acid is in white wine. It provides structure and backbone. Tannin comes from the seeds, the stems, the skins, and the barrels. So dark grapes with thick skins have more tannin than grapes with thin skins. Smaller grapes have more tannins than bigger grapes and wine that uses more stems in the fermentation process has more tannin than those that don't.
Tannin is one of the four elements that wine makers use to "balance" the wine. A wine is balanced when these elements (acid, alcohol, fruit and tannin) meld together. In other words, nothing sticks out. Tannins and acidity are elements for structure, backbone and are generally where "hardness" in the wine comes from. Alcohol and sugar are the other sides of the wine and where the "softness" comes from. When all of these come together, you have a truly "Grand Vin."
Tannin sticks out when the wine is mouth puckering and mouth drying. This is called harsh tannins (versus soft), green tannins or unripe tannins. Usually this happens when grapes are picked too green. However, I've also seen over oaked wines (too much barrel) that have harsh tannins as well. Too much oak usually smells like vanilla or toast in excess of the fruit.
The way you usually identify tannins in the wine is by its mouth drying effect. It's a mouth feel, not a taste. Because of the fermentation with skin, seeds and stems, red wines usually have the most tannin. You feel it on the sides of your mouth and the back of your tongue. It differs from acid in this way. After you swallow acid it makes you salivate (like a lemon). Tannins leave your mouth dry without the salivation. It can rattle your teeth.
In wine making, tannins are essential for long life. They serve as a preservative and they give the wine the potential for aging. Also, tannin adds to the complexity of the wine and helps balance certain foods. Try a young Bordeaux by itself (no food) and you'll taste the tannins. Now try it with a nice fatty piece of meat or hard cheese. The wine cuts the fat and the fat cuts the tannin and makes the wine softer. It works like putting milk in tea. It mellows the tannins and makes it smoother. As wine ages, tannins soften. It's a chemical thing that involves oxygen (ask your chemistry professor), but bottle age does soften tannins.
So back to the George V and the Screaming Eagle. It was a 1996 and delicious. I can still remember the flavor. A big fruit bomb on the attack and a nice long finish with soft round tannins and plenty of good acidity. And at that moment, I knew I was Nashville's Forrest Gump because my host said, "Drink Tom, drink!" (instead of "Run Forrest, run!"). And so I did and I am still drinking.
But one final thought from over 1000 years ago. From Ovid, the Art of Love, "When there is plenty of wine, sorrow and worry take wing."