A few wine terms I have questions about.

Hello All!

I have recently started work as a wine consultant at a local wine store and I am wanting to grow my basic wine knowledge a little more. Can anyone help with a few questions I have regarding some wine speak?

What is the best way to explain "Tannins"? I know its to do with the seeds and skin left in the wine and its what gives it a dry mouth taste, but if a wine is low or high in tannins, what does that really mean to the drinker?

Secondly, if someone wants a "dry" wine what does that also mean? I've read that most table wine is dry so should I tell the customers that all the wines are dry since most of what we sell is under $50 and, as so, is probably a table wine (Yellow Tail, Sutter Home etc)?

Any advice would be great! Thanks, John.
Original Post
I'm sure some others will chime in here but I'll give a start.

Tannins do indeed come from the grape juice being in contact with the skins, seeds, stems, and aging in barrel. They dry the mouth and coat the inside of your cheeks, your tongue, and stick to your teeth. They are naturally attracted to protein so the effect of tannins will be reduced when enjoying the wine with meat or cheese. They also help in giving red wine structure, balance, and a certain degree of tannins are required to allow the wine to bottle age. The degree of tannin can be felt in the mouth as woody or chalky texture. Some find it desirable and some detest it. In my mind it's all about balance.

Dryness is purely a comment about the perceived sugar content in a wine. A dry wine has been fermented to the point that there is no sugar left. In some cases (ie. german riesling) fermentation will be stopped before the wine is dry and it is then "off-dry" and retains residual sugar. The vast majority of red table wine is dry (though is could be argued that some retain a small amount of residual sugar and the are a touch off dry). Last time I had Yellow Tail and Sutter Home both based a bit sweet to me and I believe they both retain small amounts of sugar (or add some after fermentation) in their wines to create a sweet sensation to appeal to the masses, but are essentially dry when compared to something like German Riesling, Port, or desert wines.

Hope that helps!
I have to answer both of these questions alot. I've found most people are more interested in the sensation than the explanation.

I use tea to describe tannins. Explain it as the feeling you get on your gums from tea. Explain that's why acid is so important to wine to provide a way to moderate or balance that feeling.

Most people actually use 'dry' not in its proper definition of having no residual sugar, but in reference to mouth feel. You can explain how the term should be used, but most people are actually talking about the effects of tannins when they say 'dry'. They are talking about the drying effects of tannin.

So if someone says they like a dry wine, they like big tannins. If they say a wine is 'too dry' which I hear a lot, they mean they like less tannin or better tannin/acid balance. People who know what dry actually means in wine terms rarely use the word to describe a wine, so you're probably pretty safe assuming that when some says they like a dry wine, they are not talking about sugar.
Actually something we are really careful about around harvest when we're out tasting grapes is to spit and not swallow. The seeds will make you feel sick if you chew and swallow too many.

I'm not sure why it is, and when your stomach feels like there's a beach volleyball game going on inside you really don't need to know why, you just need to know not to do it.
Originally posted by Stefania Wine:
I'm not sure why it is, and when your stomach feels like there's a beach volleyball game going on inside you really don't need to know why, you just need to know not to do it.

those are probably the gopher droppings you're mistaking for grape seeds
So I'm going out on a limb and assuming that the question was legit. That guy Beppi isn't exactly correct BTW, esp regarding white wine.

Anyway, next time someone asks, tell them that there are different types of tannins. For example, gallotannins are hydrolyzable tannins and they're derivatives of 3,4,5-trihydroxyl benzoic acid, also known as gallic acid. That of course, can be esterified to a core polyol, and the galoyl groups can be further esterified or cross-linked to form more complex tannins.

There are other types of tannins of course. Ellagitannins for example, have higher oxidative activities at high pHs and that activity is thought to have an effect on caterpillars that you just don't get with the higher-molecular weight gallotannins.

That usually satisfies most people.
BTW - they're produced by plants, probably as some kind of defense against things like caterpillars and bacteria.

People discovered that they can take bark from a tree like an oak or elm or chestnut, cook it in water, and use that to soak animal skins. That's called "tanning" the hide. The tannins help remove and destroy the protein from scraps of meat and fat and they transform the skin. Mix the tannin water with some human urine and a few other things and you turn skin to rawhide to leather. Today you can go through those same steps in certain clubs.

The tannins are partly what accounts for the bitter and astringent nature of the skins you find in acorns and walnuts and filberts, they're found in skins of grapes and apples, and of course in the bark and stems and seeds of the plants. They're what makes your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth when you drink some red wines. Usually they're not as present in whites.

As you age your wine, they polymerize and fall to the bottom as part of the sediment, although there's some evidence that that's not really what happens either. Because they bind with oxygen, they keep your wine from being ruined by the oxygen, and thus they're preservatives. That's why people want them in red wine that they intend to age. They aren't necessarily the things that make your wine taste bitter - there are lots of other compounds that can do that and tannins are maybe more involved in the sensation than in the taste, but they do have a bitterness too.

People talk about "fine" tannins and "silky" tannins and such and frankly, I have no idea what they're talking about most of the time. Sometimes they do but I think they really are referring to the ripeness of the fruit and perhaps the winemaking.

As suggested, make black tea with a tea bag and then squish the juice out of the bag onto a spoon and taste it. If you're using a tea bag in the first place, the tea is going to taste horrible, but that last bit that you squish out is going to have more undesireable tannins than the part that simply leeched out during steeping. There are also tannins in chocolate, which is why some people don't care for some chocolates, and there are tannins in many plants and fruits that we eat regularly.

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