A blog about life, language, writing, and other trivia.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What, Exactly, are Tannins?

Another wine column from Bill Stimmel and me (though I only post here the columns that I'm wholly or primarily responsible for drafting):

It’s the question everybody wants to ask but is too intimidated to: What are tannins? The technical answer is that tannins are bitter-tasting polyphenols that, in grapes, are present in largest quantities in the seeds, skins, and stems. Tannins’ astringent flavors are responsible for the sensation you sometimes get from red wines, or from over-steeped tea—the one where your gums stick to your teeth and you feel like Tom after Jerry tricks him into sucking up a pile of alum.

So why don’t winemakers try to keep tannins out of their wines? Because tannins only make you feel as if your mouth was sandblasted with sidewalk chalk when they are either too “green” or when their levels are so high they overwhelm other elements of the wine. When they are fully “ripe” (which is not the same thing as ripeness of fruit—getting these two levels in sync is one of the signature challenges of great winemaking), tannins provide “structure;” by virtue of the tactile sensation they cause in the mouth, tannins work with a wine’s acidity to keep big, high-alcohol wines from tasting flat and lifeless. Tannins are also preservatives: when a young wine is overpowered by tannins, if they are ripe enough, that same wine ten, even twenty years later will have had time to develop a sensual, earthy depth, while at the same time the tannins will have softened and faded into the supporting role they were meant to play. Finally, tannins can also help red wines stand up to aggressively flavored foods. A tannic wine that is off-putting on its own may sing like the Vienna Boys’ Choir with a char-grilled steak.

One of the most famously tannic grapes is Cabernet Sauvignon, and winemakers often accentuate a truly great Cabernet’s tannins by leaving it in contact with the skins, seeds, and stems for longer than they would if they were going for a fruitier style meant to be drunk young. In fact, world class Cabernets often need ten or more years of aging before their tannins mellow, allowing the grape’s naturally earthy flavors and aromas to emerge in ways that less tannic, fruit-driven Cabernets just can’t match. Think of an aged wine as a stew: you can get good flavor in one or two hours (mostly from showy aromatics, herbs, and spices—things that yield big flavor quickly), but for a stew to achieve true depth and complexity, it needs long, slow simmering. Another grape almost infamous for its tannins is Nebbiolo, the grape responsible for the legendary Italian wines Barolo and Barbaresco.

Not all red wines are tannic beasts, nor do they need to be. We love easy-drinking, fruit-forward reds. But the next time you throw a porterhouse on a blazing grill, try pairing it with a five-to-ten-year-old California Cabernet Sauvignon, or another good-quality tannic wine. You won’t regret it.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Tips for Teaching Yourself about Wine

I'm not yet ready to turn this blog into a wine-only blog, though that's what it's been in principle for quite a while now. I may still have other things, even rhetoric- and writing-related things, to say in the future. For now, though, here's a recently-run column from Bill Stimmel and me (it ran in the Bowling Green [OH] Sentinel-Tribune):

People always ask us how we learned so much about wine. And while we admit that we have much more to learn, the simple answer is that we read about, taste, and talk about wine as often as we can. In this column, we want to elaborate on these simple strategies, which can help you build your experience and knowledge and which in turn will offer you heightened satisfaction from your wine drinking experiences.

When learning about wine, reading is vital, and there are many different sources of good information. For general information, books are indispensable resources. Sources like our favorite, Karen MacNiel’s Wine Bible, are full of information and tips about winemaking, world wine regions, wine purchasing and storing, major and lesser-known grapes, tasting techniques, and pairing wine with food that are a must for building basic knowledge. There are also a number of wine books devoted to more in-depth information, focusing on specific subjects like wines from a single grape or region, though we recommend these as supplements to the required general reading. And, for more time-sensitive and topical information, a periodic publication like Wine Spectator would be a perfect choice. Even the internet is full of information that is only a Google search away (though you need to make sure you wind up on a site run by a person or people who know what they’re talking about).

Tasting, of course, is a key counterpart to reading, and any tasting is better than none. But there is a way to maximize your learning from tasting: taste systematically. While it’s ok to go to a tasting with whites and reds from all over the world, it’s also important to seek out—or engineer for yourself—opportunities to taste together (or over a short period of time) many wines from the same grape and region. Doing so helps you develop a sense of a grape’s and a region’s signature qualities (body, color, aroma, flavor, etc.). You’ll be surprised at how proud you feel the first time you’re able to note that a California Sauvignon Blanc has New Zealand-like tropical fruit, or that a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon has Bordeaux-like earthiness. And, with focused tasting, it doesn’t take all that long to learn to do so.

Finally, it is vital to talk about wine with fellow wine lovers. Sharing your wine experiences and interests with others, and listening as they share theirs with you, can stimulate curiosity, broaden your knowledge, and create a sense of community that can only make drinking wine more fun and more satisfying. After all, wine, like food, is a way of bringing people together to celebrate, to build friendships, and to cement social and cultural bonds. It is, in short, a way of making us more human.

So take our advice. After all, the world needs a little more humanity.