Through a series of fortuitous events not entirely of my making, I’ve been plowing though a number of high- impact, full-bodied red wines lately. Some, like the J.L. Chave from France’s Rhône Valley, are pretty well known by wine fanciers. Others, like the Jiménez-Landi from Méntrida, Spain (I’m still trying find Méntrida on a map), are undiscovered stars.
The one thing all these wines have in common is that they have their fair share of tannins.
Tannins are one of the most misunderstood components of wine. They mistakenly are given credit for allergic reactions. Some wine drinkers describe dry wines (wines without any residual sugar) as tannic, which is not the case.
Tannins are phenolic compounds found in tree bark and in fruits. In the case of grapes, especially red grapes, tannins are found in the skins and seeds. To a lesser degree, oak barrels can introduce tannins into a wine during the fermentation and aging process.
Besides subtle color changes, tannins are responsible for two important wine qualities: bitterness and astringency. In low doses, bitterness enhances a wine’s complexity and balance. One of the trickier aspects of winemaking is managing the level of tannic astringency in a red wine. Too few tannins, you get a wimpy, flabby wine (think fruit compote). Too many tannins, you get a wine with mouth-puckering astringency (think over-brewed tea).
Get the tannins just right and you get a high-tensile-strength bridge that supports a wine’s fruit, tart and spice qualities. Tannins, in part, give age-worthy reds the structural integrity to evolve in the bottle for years or even decades.
But this is not a story about tannins. This is a story about oxygen and just about everything else in your wine glass besides tannins.
Remember those big reds I mentioned way back in paragraph one? As the evenings waned, the tannic effects faded into the background and the wines became more enjoyable. I decided to cork each one halfway through to carefully taste them the following night. All four were glorious the second night.
What happened? Well, without devolving into an absolute wine nerd, oxygen happened. A number of compounds in a wine remain imperceptible without oxygen. Many of you have heard the term “letting a wine open up.” As a wine “opens up,” oxygen is bonding to acids and various other wine components so we can smell and taste them. The tannins, thankfully, still provide structure and support, but all the spice, fruit and earth notes eventually find their way onto the platform.
The sad fact is we often tip back the final sip of a wine just as it is ready to show you its stuff.
You can see what I mean for yourself. I’ll even share the four wines I experimented with: the 2008 Jiménez-Landi Sotorrondero, the 2009 J.L. Chave Mon Coeur, the 2009 Black Slate Porrera from Priorat, Spain, and the 2009 Sebastiani Zinfandel from Sonoma, Calif. Simply drink half the bottle one night; cork it; and on the second night you’ll witness what a fascinating, living thing wine can be.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog