I recently received a message from one of my readers asking me, “What is tannin.” In spite of the classic Lucille Ball episode where she is crushing grapes in her bare feet, this does not really occur. They have far superior methods of crushing the grapes. Most grape juice from crushing is a clear uncolored liquid. The grapes are crushed with the skins, seeds and stems and the semi liquid state is allowed to sit, as there are natural yeasts that promote the fermentation of the juice. This sugar/water solution ferments into alcohol/water solution. The amount of tannin and coloring matter is absorbed from the skins and this is determined by the wine maker, as to how long this mixture is left to sit. This is called vatting or in French cuvaison which can be from two or three days to two or three weeks. As an example most Champagne wine is made from black grapes, the grapes are pressed immediately before the skins can tint the solution. Rose wines may sit for a couple of days to get that pink tint (though sometimes a Rose may be made from blending red and white wines together).
The important step for the winemaker is to control the fermentation process and it the liquid may go from vat to vat to remove impurities along the way. This is a step by step process to convert the juice into alcohol. Red wines are “fermented out” dry until there is only a slight trace of sugar left in the wine. That is why red wines are referred to as dry wines, and it is the amount of tannin or acids that makes one wine drier than another. White wines are pressed immediately and the juice ferments away from the skins. That is why white wines have less tannin. Tannin is an important constituent of the fine red wines and which makes some of them to have a “puckerish” taste when they are young.
This is a very brief and non-in-depth discussion of a part of the wine making procedure. Now to give two examples of how tannin enhances a wine and eventually makes it mellow, and the reason you hear about cellars with old wine bottles. The other day on Thanksgiving we opened a bottle of Chateau Cheval Blanc 1986 and I remarked about how the tannins had faded or mellowed out and there was still fruit in the nose and the taste of the wine. This was from a wine that was twenty-six years old, and I may add that it is one of the finest examples of a First Growth from the Saint Emilion district. Now I will compare that to a Chateau Latour 1961, a First Growth from Pauillac from the Medoc. When we opened this bottle forty years later, everyone at the dinner was amazed at the amount of tannin that was still evident in the wine. We called it feisty and had determined that the wine was opened too soon, and as a further tasting note on this wine, my Brother-in-law that had this wine as well as another bottle that he opened ten years later, said that at the age of fifty the tannin has mellowed and that it was the most wonderful bottle of Chateau Latour that he had ever had. As a side note, I do not have the label from the Chateau Latour 1961, so I am showing a later vintage label from the winery. The two empty bottles have a cherished location in my Brother-in-law’s cellar.