One reason so many people don’t like red wine is because they’re overwhelmed by the tannins. They sip the wine, and then taste something bitter and astringent just before they swallow (or spit it out, as the case may be). Then they shake their heads and go, “No more red wine for me.”
But tannins don’t have to be that way.
In fact, tannins are a crucial part of well-made red wine, and they aren’t supposed to taste like battery acid. Their job is to help the wine age, and the longer the wine lasts, the more the tannins go away. In young wines – and remember, 90 percent of the wine made in the world is made to drink young – there isn’t any time for the tannins to go away. And in poorly made red wine, the tannins are even more noticeable and unpleasant. One of the best descriptions I’ve seen of too much tannin? You get a furry taste in your mouth.
I'll skip the chemical discussion of tannins and tannic acid. It’s enough to know that tannins come from grape skins, as well as the seeds and the stems. And, since red wine is made with the skins and white wine isn’t, there are tannins in red wine and not in white. Note, too, that there are tannins in sweet red wine. There aren’t as noticeable because the sugar covers up the tannins.
Typically, tannins are more pronounced in cabernet sauvignon and merlot than in pinot noir. That’s because the first two have thicker skins, which means more skin is involved in the winemaking process. And, for those who do want to get more complex, cabernet grapes have less juice, which means the skin to juice ratio is even higher, which means more tannins. Also, tannins seem to be one of the reasons behind red wine’s health benefits.
So what do you do if you don’t like tannins but don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars for a bottle of red wine?
• Stay away from cabernet. Drink inexpensive California merlot, which is made to be fruity but not tannic. Other good bets are pinot noir and wines from Spain and southern France, made with grapes like grenache and tempranillo.
• Drink tannic wines with food. The difference is amazing. Fattier foods like prime rib and cheese play off the tannins in a way that cuts the acid and highlights the body and structure tannins give to the wine.
• Chill the wine. You might not taste all of the fruit, but you won’t taste all the tannins either. It’s not a perfect compromise, but it’s not a bad approach for cheap wine that isn’t all that well made.