I believe it was Frank Sinatra who once sang: “Tannins are a many-splendored thing.” Of course, this was re-titled replacing “tannins” with “love” to suit more popular tastes. But from my view, tannins give love a run for its money in the splendor department.
Joel Kostka, professor of microbial ecology at Georgia Tech, describes the wonders of tannins like this: “Tannins are thought to be mostly polyphenolic compounds that can form large macromolecules….In the northern wetlands or peatlands that I study, tannin-like compounds have been observed in peats. These tannins are believed to be responsible for the almost perfectly preserved human bodies (Tolund man) found in peats that are thousands of years old….In other words, these tannin-like compounds have antimicrobial properties. Through a variety of mechanisms, the compounds are thought to poison microbes.”
What Kostka didn’t mention (but also has big-time implications for wine drinkers) is that tannins are bitter and astringent. Red wine grapes are replete with tannins. (White wine grapes have tannins, too, but tannins play a bigger role with red wine.) Managing the bitter, puckering qualities of tannins are a chief concern of any consistently employed winemaker. Not enough tannins and a red wine can feel flabby, jammy and without structure. Too many tannins and a wine can make your cheeks and gums feel like they’ve been massaged with sandpaper.
I was pondering polyphenolic compounds recently as I poured myself a glass of Paolo Bea’s Sanvalentino for my evening repast. In addition to sangiovese and montepulciano, this red wine from Umbria, Italy, is comprised of 65 percent sagrantino, which the Bea family romantically refers to as Storico Vitigno Autoctono di Montefalco. Sagrantino holds the distinction of being the world’s most tannic grape. I have no scientific proof to back this up, but take it from a guy who tasted through 30 sagrantino-based wines one afternoon in the green hills of Umbria: sagrantino has mad levels of tannins.
The Sanvalentino was a force to deal with. It took me an hour or more to sip my way through about five ounces. The tannins were fierce with pronounced bitterness and astringency that nearly caused a palate implosion. Round two, the next night, I found the wine to be more approachable with notes of plums, prunes, raisins and a tantalizing note of bitterness, something like a 70 percent cacao chocolate bar. Round three, the next night, was the highlight. The wine had finally (mercifully) mellowed out. Aggressive tannic edges were gone, ripe plums emerged with other rich, dark berry fruit and a cupboard full of dark brown spices.
Interestingly, I detected no obvious notes of vinegar, which would be expected in any non-sagrantino-based wine. This I attribute to the splendor (and protective powers) of tannins.
As polyphenolic compounds go, tannins are the handsome and friendly type. They play well with other compounds, such as acids and proteins, which find tannins quite attractive in a wink-wine, nudge-nudge sort of way. When tannins hook up with anthocyanins (the compound responsible for a wine’s red-purple color), for example, things get heavy. So heavy, in fact, that they fall out of solution. We can see the results of this liaison in the sediment at the bottom of a wine bottle.
As Kostka explained, in nature, tannins serve as a defense system for many plants, trees and fruits. Their off-putting bitterness and astringency make unpalatable to hungry bugs, animals and microbes. As they do in the wild, tannins protect wine from the ravages of time and overly eager wine lovers. In the short-term, highly tannic wines can be almost unbearable (case in point, my 2007 Paolo Bea Sanvalentino). In the long term, as tannins break down, your patience is often rewarded with glorious, complex and unique wine experiences.
About eight hours after my inglorious sagrantino tasting in May 2010 mentioned above, I discovered the rewards of patience and tannins. I sat down to dinner with Marco Caprai, the owner and winemaker for Arnaldo-Caprai wines. The generous and flamboyant Caprai, brought a surprise. He had a magnum of his 1976 sagrantino. The uncorking caused a bit of a stir at the quiet trattoria in the old town of Bevagna, a stone’s throw from Assisi . Our table, an adjoining table and the restaurant owner, an enthusiastic wine lover himself, all clamored for a taste. Caprai was more than happy to share.
The wine? Fresh as a daisy. Most everyone was in agreement that it seemed as if it were 5 or 6 years old, although it was past its 30th birthday. In some ways, it reminded me of the Sanvalentino, but a bit more elegant and complex. And while I might have been singing the blues about tannins earlier in the day, my opinion shifted that night. Tannins are, indeed, a many splendored thing.
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