On Smooth Wine

Glass-of-WineTannin is a wine term that provides an explanation why some people don’t like red wine – yet – it also applies to why others or prefer red wines, or even the preference for a particular red wine. Tannin is also the unknowingly basis of why some buyers ask for “a smooth wine.”

Some associate tannin with leather, which a good thought to describe tannic red wines because tannin is what causes the dry feeling within the mouth – the pucker of dryness – the feeling like someone swabbed the mouth dry.

What are tannins?
Tannin is actually a protein group found through plant parts as stems and leaves – and in grape skins. It’s not something one smells, but its taste can also be found in tea, chocolate, herbs, and more. Yet, it is because of tannins that red wine goes so well with the fats of red meats and cheeses.

Why are some red wines more tannic?
There are numerous factors determining the tannin level in wine. Whether natural or from the winemaker, here are the key factors – and help with the understanding, let’s go through the winemaking process.

(1) Grape Variety: Some kinds of grapes are naturally more tannic. For instance, cabernet sauvignon is more tannic than merlot.

(2) Grape Maturity: Picking the grapes at the right time is important for optimal levels of juice, sugar, and tannin. In general, younger grapes have more tannin.

(3) Vineyard: Although the vineyard itself is not a tannin source, the soil and conditions may yield a certain minerality that could enhance tannins taste.

(4) Exposure Time: While white grapes only yield white wines, dark grapes can deliver red or white wines. After all, the grape’s juice is close to colorless; thus, red wine’s color comes from exposing the juice to the skins. Regarding tannins, the longer the juice is exposure to the skins, the higher the tannin levels.

(5) Fermentation: Fermentation is the process yielding the alcohol. Some winemakers prefer to ferment the juice in the presence of grape stems, skins, and seeds – which will yield more tannic wine.

(6) Barrels: After initial fermentation, winemakers place many red wines into barrels. Because the barrel’s wood is from the stems of a tree, the barrels naturally contain tannin. Now, sub factors as the type of tree, the newness of the barrel, and the time spent in the barrel become important factors.

(7) Additives: The winemaker may choose to add wood chips or tannin powder to the barreling process. Again, type, amount, and time are factors.

(8) Age: Finally, the wine moves from the barrel to the bottle. Although many wines are drinkable, some need more time in the bottle than others – time allowing additional reactions to occur to tone down the tannins.

(9) Blending: In order to achieve the desired outcome, the winemaker has the luxury of blending wines (before bottling). Remember grape varieties and the vineyards are two of the initial factors. A winemaker may blend Cabernet from different vineyards to achieve a desired taste. They may add less tannic wines to soften the tannin levels – or add tannic wine to a softer wine to give the wine more substance

A blending note: Labeling laws are different everywhere, California law gives the winemaker much latitude. That is, for a wine to be labeled Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, or whatever, it must contain at least 75% of that grape variety. In other words, the other undisclosed grapes may in the bottle, but not on the label.

Winemakers experience a lot of pain when determining the result in that bottle. They know consumers have different tastes. So, people asking their retailer for a smooth wine are actually asking for less tannin … so keep this in mind in your purchases.

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60 thoughts on “On Smooth Wine

  1. That was a nice summary. I like both reds and whites. Today, at the store I bought a chardonnay by Lindeman from Australia. We had pork chops and green beans for dinner with it. Delicious.

    I must admit that reds are actually my favorite by a little. Thanks for some of the details.

  2. Good post Frank. I’m a red wine fan, but I tend to drink more white in summer. I have a bottle of rosé in my refrigerator right now that my friend, Coco, recommended. It’s a 2012 from Wolffer Estate vineyard from Long Island. I think I’m going to quaff it over the upcoming holiday weekend.

  3. Riojas tend to be very tannic, that oaky (is that even a word?) taste is not too bad, however, not wanting to be gross, when you puke it and comes through your nose it leaves scars for a week. I’m not a fan a Riojas.

    • Good Morning Java,
      Glad I meant my target of simplifying information! :) Interesting question. Portuguese wines are quite the value, but not as easily found as French wines. In general, I find both of them to have an earthy taste – which is a taste my wife doesn’t enjoy. Therefore, in the end, one has to drink what is appealing to them.

  4. well, i also feel much more educated and when i reach for that glass of merlot tonight, i will fully appreciate the effort it took to get the tasty beverage just right. thanks, Frank. :)

    • Sunshine,
      We went to a tasting one evening about blending, but the presenter called it “experiencing the pain of the winemaker” … all were Malbecs, but from four different vineyards, thus each with a quite distinct taste. I recall one being VERY tannic! The winemaker must determine the percentage of each vineyard for the final product. If one preferred tannic wines, thus that vineyard gets a high percentage …. and so forth. Very interesting … Meanwhile, cheers to your Merlot tonight.

  5. Thanks for this info, I think I knew a bit about tannins, that the lighter, easier to drink reds had less tannin. I think that a higher tannin content tends to give a bigger hangover, would that be right? I much prefer red to white, and I think I mentioned on here before that my default choice is a Rioja. I don’t drink a lot of wine though because it tends to wipe me out really easily, with only a few glasses, so I drink beer more which I can handle better. I didn’t know that red grapes can also produce white wine, so that’s an interesting snippet I’ve learned here, thank you!

    • Vanessa,
      I imagine higher tannins and hangovers are related to some people, but not sure with all. Then again, that is the wine world! Cheers to your love for Rioja … good stuff! BTW … the next time you have a dark grape in hand, squeeze it and then look at the color of the juice.

  6. I love this post, Frank! I’m a Cab girl, so I try to taste as many different reds as possible. Shiraz is too strong for me, so I tend to stay away from those, but Merlots and Cab Sauvignon are my faves. Cheers!

    • Kayjai,
      Woo hoo to being a Cab girl! Interestingly that Shiraz are too strong for you because to others, Cab are stronger. Then again, much depends on the producer. Interestingly, some producers use Merlot to tone-down their Cab …. and use Cab to beef-up their Merlot. Cheers!

  7. i learned a lot of this in a recent wine class. one thing to add is about the barrels. some vineyards use stainless steel barrels now instead of wood. it affects the taste, for sure, but mainly with whites. some vineyards use wooden barrels but only one or two times, then toss them out because the added flavor weakens after the second use.

  8. This is so informative, Frank. I know what I like…and that’s about the extent of what I know! :-) This week we are expecting a shipment of wine from Opolo Vineyards in Paso Robles. We joined the wine club and will take advantage for a while of a few shipments. After we “signed up” we realized that most of the grocery stores north of Santa Barbara do carry the Paso Robles wines, including Opolo. We have different labels in SoCal, so we will probably in the future just enjoy a day trip north and load up the car! LOL!

    • Debra,
      We love Opolo! Brought back a zin from our trip there, and then they appeared (once) at the Cincinnati Wine Festival … so they must be in a store somewhere in the city.

      Meanwhile, knowing what you like is important, but this helps explain why … well, at least for reds.

  9. Very nice post. I always enjoy your posts on wine. Was a little surprised that you didn’t mention the connection between tannin and the peel of the grape… but I do love the taste of tannin. Thanks.

    • Shimon,
      Ah ha …. you enjoy the tannins of hearty red wines. Good for you & wish I could share a bottle with you. Glad you enjoyed this, but the peel has it’s spotlight as I call it skins.

  10. Gotta love the complexity of red wine. The more I read about the makeup of red wine and how the various flavours, notes and finishes are constructed, the more I want to sample! Thanks for the lesson!

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