A long with alcohol, acid and fruitiness, tannins are an essential component of the wine tasting experience. Chemically classified as polyphenols, they play a part in plant physiology. Their bitterness is a deterrent to foraging predators and their natural antioxidant and antibiotic properties are an aid in healing damaged tissue. Tannins work by binding with proteins, rendering them inactive. In the mouth they deactivate the lubricating qualities of protein-rich saliva — hence the moisture-wicking, tooth-coating, lip-puckering sensation so familiar to wine lovers. Tannins are derived from the skins, leaves, seeds and stems of red, purple and "black" grapes. To achieve their color, reds undergo extended contact with the crushed grape pulp during maceration and fermentation. White wines, derived from green grapes, are not usually fermented with skins and seeds and so are quite low in tannins. Rosés achieve their pink color from minimal skin contact, and so also display low tannin levels. To minimize harshness, vintners often de-stem high-tannin red grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah/Shiraz before crushing, while low-tannin fruit like Pinot Noir is readily fermented whole cluster, stems and all. Additional tannic content results from aging in oak barrels, adding structure, complexity and depth.
Tannins — which are tasteless and odorless — are experienced as texture, an astringent, bitter or coarse sensation that grips the sides of the tongue and the front of the oral cavity. Descriptors such as "green," "harsh "or "chewy" abound, especially with young red varietals. A drying sensation is the hallmark of a tannic wine (but is not a measure of the dryness of the wine, a term used to describe levels of sweetness). As the wine matures in barrels or bottles, tannin molecules "polymerize" or clump up into long chains, softening their harshness and rendering the mouth-feel supple, round, velvety, lush and integrated.
Examples of low or moderately tannic reds are Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Merlot, Gamay, Malbec and Barbera. High tannic wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah/Shiraz, Petit Sirah, Nebiolo and Tempranillo.
EXPERT WINE RECOMMENDATIONS
• NANCY SABATINI
Mainstreet 5425 S. La Grange Rd. Countryside. (708 354-0355)
-2017 Miro Cellars Chevalier Vineyard Grenache Rosé (Calif.) $20. A classic ruby rosé produced with cold fermentation and no oak contact to assure aromas and flavors of ripe berries, orange and hibiscus. Dry with a juicy acidity.
-2014 Balletto Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Noir (Calif.) $23. A lush Sonoma Pinot with a smooth body of red and black fruit, pomegranates and plums, and scents of currants, black cherries, earth, mocha and spice. This layered wine balances fresh acidity and tannins.
• ALIXE LISCHETTE
Cabernet & Company 434 N. Main St., Glen Ellyn. (630 469-2644)
-2016 Omen Cabernet Sauvignon (Calif.) $20. This big, bold red boasts black cherry, blackberry and cassis with hints of smoke, graphite and chocolate, all balanced by well-integrated tannins.
-2014 Cambria Tepusquet Vineyard Syrah (Calif.) $20. A nose of dark fruits, spice and mocha leads to a dynamic palate with layers of berries. The harmonious tannins and acidity induce a nicely rounded mouth-feel.