Explaining Wine Tannins: What Defines High and Low Tannin Levels

high vs low tannins
Updated November 2023

In the world of oenology, wine tannins, scientifically known as polyphenols, play a crucial role in wine composition. These acid compounds derive primarily from grape skins, seeds, and stems, resulting in wines with potentially high or low tannins, depending on the grape variety and where it grows.

The impact of wine tannins is palpable on the taste buds, manifesting as a gritty and dry sensation in the mouth. You might notice your teeth sticking to your gums and the roof of your mouth feeling fuzzy and parched. The intensity of these sensations can indicate whether a wine is high or low in tannins. A wine exhibiting a profound tannic experience contains high tannin levels, while a more subtle sensation suggests a wine with lower tannin content.

Tannins are predominantly found in red wines, owing to the extended maceration process where the grape juice remains in contact with the skins. This prolonged exposure allows the tannins to become infused within the liquid, resulting in a tannic wine.

The concentration of wine tannins is influenced by factors such as the thickness of grape skins, their ripeness levels, and the duration of contact between the skins, seeds, and stems with the grape juice. For instance, grapes like Pinot Noir, which possess thin skins, yield wines with lower tannin levels. In contrast, grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, with thicker skins, produce wines with higher tannin content, imparting a more assertive mouthfeel and potential for aging.

grapes - wine tannins

Red Wines With Low Tannins

Pinot Noir – Pinot Noir grapes have thin skin, creating a wine that is very low in tannins and light in body. 

Dolcetto – Dolcetto 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 primarily of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc grapes. Sometimes, they also include 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 is an offspring grape of Syrah. It 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 can make a bold red wine, but is also common in a rosé blend. 

Can White or Rosé Wine Have Tannins?

White and rosé wines go through maceration for less time (if at all), resulting in wines with light color and few tannins. That’s not to say that these wines have no tannins altogether. White and rosé can also have tannins from barrel contact. Wine tannins can come from wood 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, producing a copper-orange wine. 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 in 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 make it a challenging wine pairing, despite popular belief.

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