Scientifically speaking, tannins are an acid compound otherwise known as polyphenols. Its presence in wine comes from the grape skins, seeds and stems, as well as the barrel if the wine has been aged. They are also the backbone to helping a wine age, leading to the sediment found in the bottom of bottles. This helps to keep the integrity of the original wine.
Think of tannins as something you feel in your mouth rather than something you’ll taste. It’s that gritty, dry feeling you get once you’ve sipped your wine; your teeth stick to your gums, and the roof of your mouth feels fuzzy and dry. If you experience all of these things at a high level, then you’re drinking a wine that’s high in tannins. If you experience it just a little, then it’s a wine that’s low in tannins.
Tannins are most commonly found in red wine due to the extended maceration process. Leaving the juice with the grape skins embeds the tannins within the juice, leading to a tannic wine.
The presence of the tannins depends on how thick the grape skins are and then how long the skin, seeds and stems stay in contact with the grape juice. A Pinot Noir is going to be lower in tannins because it’s a thin-skinned grape, while a Cabernet Sauvignon will be quite high in tannins, as the grape has a thicker skin.
Red Wines With Low Tannins
Pinot Noir – Pinot Noir grapes are known for their thin-skin, therefore creating a wine that is very low in tannins, as well as light in body.
Dolcetto – Dolcetto grapes are found in Piedmont, Italy. Dolcetto actually translates to “little sweet one”. While often exhibiting low tannins, occasionally it can be higher.
Barbera – Barbera is another native Italian grape. It’s often made into a medium to full-bodied wine with low tannins and fruit-forward flavors.
Gamay – Gamay is related to the Pinot Noir grape and is therefore also quite thin-skinned, producing very lightly tannic wines.
Red Wines With High Tannins
Bordeaux blend – Bordeaux blends consist largely of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes, and are sometimes completed with Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère. The combination of these thick-skinned grapes produces a heavily tannic wine.
Monastrell/Mourvèdre – The grape, known as Monastrell in its native home of Spain and Mourvèdre throughout most of the world, produces a wine known for its incredibly high tannins.
Petit Sirah – Petite Sirah, an offspring grape of Syrah, is not widely grown throughout the world, but presents a bold and largely tannic wine.
Nebbiolo – Despite its light coloring, Nebbiolo is a bold and heavily tannic wine, originating from Piedmont, Italy.
Tannat – Tannat grapes originate from France and have the ability to make a bold red wine, but can also be used in a rosé blend.
Can White or Rosé Wine Have Tannins?
White and rosé wines are macerated for less time (if at all), leaving the wines lighter in color and with less tannins from the grape skins, seeds and stems. That’s not to say that these wines have no tannins altogether. White and rosé wine can also have tannins from barrel contact. Tannins can come from the wood itself but are much softer and less evident than grape tannins.
An exception to tannins in white wine is when it’s made using red winemaking methods. For this, winemakers keep the white grape skins in contact with the juice for a longer period, producing a wine with a copper-orange color. The popularity of orange wine ebbs and flows, but it’s certainly a category of wine that is here to stay.
Other Beverages and Food With Tannins
Tannins aren’t exclusive to grapes or the wine they produce. Black tea is heavily tannic. Tannins are present within black coffee as well.
Tannic foods include nuts, especially pecans. The skin in particular is where the tannins originate. Another tannic food is chocolate. The tannins in chocolate actually make it a very difficult wine pairing, despite popular belief.