Rough Around the Edges
Red wine is a shocker. Very few people actually like red wine at first sip; its astringent, tannic character trounces our delicate mouths. But don’t give up on red wine, just learn to manage its impish tannins.
Tannins, which are found in grape skins, eagerly soak up the saliva in our mouths, resulting in a mouth-drying sensation similar to that after drinking a strong cup of tea. This is what makes red wine so refreshing. However, rough-and-tumble tannins love to scuffle with our tongues. This is especially true with young wines from Bordeaux. As wine ages, the little-devil tannins soften and their mouth-puckering astringency diminishes, leaving wines soft and silky.
To train your tongue to identify tannin, use your teeth to peel the skin off an ordinary grape. Chew the purple grape-skin and feel your mouth tissue shrivel. An even stronger source of tannin is in the grape seeds (go ahead, I dare you) and that is why many winemakers go to great lengths to avoid breaking open the seeds when crushing grapes. It is no surprise that ancient winemaking involved stomping the grapes with nothing but the spongy soles of human feet.
If chewing grape seeds isn’t your idea of fun, then tutor your tongue by sloshing incredibly strong black tea in your mouth (we call my brew the “espresso of teas”).
Love them or loath them, tannins are integral to a good quality red wine. Without tannin, wine lacks texture and substance. What would Thai silk be like without its nubs? Velvet without its soft, dense pile? Sandpaper without its grit?
There is a bagful of tricks to beat pesky tannins at their game. The most rewarding, but cumbersome, approach is time: fill your wine cellar and then wait a few years for the tannins to mellow.
Too slow? Need the wine tonight? Open the bottle a few hours before dinner to induce a touch of premature aging. Oxygen causes short tannins – the really mean, nasty kind – to link together in long chains like snap-lock beads (if you don’t know what we mean, ask the nearest available five year-old girl), which softens them. Simply removing the cork from the bottle isn’t sufficient exposure to oxygen. Instead, pour the wine out of the bottle into a decanter. If you do not have a decanter, any old pitcher will do, but it must be immaculately clean, odor-free and preferably made of glass. Once the wine has been poured into the pitcher, swirl it around for a minute or two and then pour it back into the bottle. This process may be repeated until the wine is satisfactorily softened.
If you don’t have the patience to wait for your wines to soften, the simplest solution is to look for grape varieties that have naturally lower tannin levels. My favorite grape variety, Pinot Noir, has the least aggressive tannins. Other wines with easy-going tannins are Merlot or Grenache from southern France.
The trick is to find red wines with tannin levels that you enjoy – not levels that torment you.
Tune up your tongue by uncorking a Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois. After a swallow, rub your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Is it gritty? Rough? Does it feel like fine sand? Velvet? Silk? Now take a sip of Jacob’s Creek Australian Merlot. Enjoy the bright fruity flavors, but concentrate on the softer, silkier texture of this wine’s tannins.
Some clever producers have noted that tough tannins can be off-putting for consumers, so they employ specialized winemaking techniques that tame the tannins, making the wine easy drinking and friendly. A country particularly good at toning down their tannins is — you guessed it — Australia.
Drink wines with firm or grainy tannins – the ones that leave your mouth a bit scratchy – with meats and foods high in fat. Silkier wines – the ones that leave your mouth smooth – are more versatile and can be served with pasta, vegetables or fish.