Wine lovers are often heard sonneting about mouth-filling sensations. Some crude and harsh, aggressive even, others soft, as smooth as silk, velvety, furry or fleshy. These are all wine speak adjectives to describe the effect of tannins in red wine.
Tannins are the subject of a huge amount of research and head-scratching by winemakers all around the world. After all, they are a complex group of natural compounds found not only in grapes, but also in other fruits, plants and tree bark. Tannins in wine originate both from grapes, especially from the skins of red grapes, stems and seeds, but also from oak used during the wine making process.
Chemically tannins belong to a large class of compounds known as phenolics or polyphenols and, indeed, they impart what can be summarised as ‘bitterness’ and ‘astringency’. This time I’d like to explore with you these two similar but different sensations which should not be confused.
You’ll need two young red wines, a couple of bay laurel leaves from your spice rack, quality Parmesan and still water apart from wine glasses and a corkscrew. The recommended wines are Delicata’s Victoria Heights Cabernet Sauvignon and Medina Ġellewża both of the 2014 vintage.
The best way to undertake this is by demonstrating the bitter perception first. Fold a bay leaf, drink some water, now suck on the leaf and soon enough you’ll taste its bitter oil which is detectable on your tongue, especially the flat part. Taste is the operative word here since bitterness is one of the primary tastes sensed by a specific receptor found in the tongue’s taste buds. Have you noticed how it hardly impacts the insides of your mouth?
So long as it’s not present in excess, bitterness needn’t be a wine fault. But it’s usually not a desirable quality in wine, unless in the case of certain Italian reds and some white wines such as Gewurztraminer and Muscat which can have a distinct bitter edge.
Now treat yourself to a good sip of the first wine, Victoria Heights Cabernet Sauvignon, which is sure to grip your gums – ‘fur them up’ – and give an impression of dryness as experienced in most red wines.
This is astringency: not a basic taste but a touch sensation. It’s a feeling not restricted to the area of the tongue but present all over the mouth, especially where the tongue touches its surfaces. Tannins, you see, react and join, and react and join, mortared together almost ad infinitum, in our mouth leaving a rough, rasping feeling.
Tannins are considered desirable in wines that are meant to be aged. Over time, the tannins soften and add to the complexity of a well-aged red wine. For wines you intend to drink right away, too much tannin can be harsh (but a great asset to make chewy red meat more palatable).
Certain foods, especially protein-rich ones, can counteract the coarseness and make young tannic wines easier to drink. You’ll understand how if you take a little bite of Parmesan when tasting more of that delicious Cabernet. Almost miraculously, the astringency fades away and the wine’s intense red berry fruit comes singing through. The cheese’s abundant protein makes your mouth feel slippery again, and eases some of that tannin-related roughness.
After a rest and some water, you should taste and compare both wines starting with the Medina Ġellewża. Notice how they are both enjoyable wine styles but at opposite ends of the astringency scale: an unoaked featherweight Ġellewża, easy and fruity, ready now to enjoy on its own; and a fuller-bodied, firm Cabernet Sauvignon which stands up to rich fare.
Experiment to your heart’s content. But you might want to avoid eating Parmesan with the light and bright Ġellewża – what an unequal contest that would be.
This article first appeared in The Times of Malta, Friday 18 March 2016