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Wine and Food Wednesday
Oh, For The Love of Tannin—And The Foods That Go With It

By Stephen Eliot

When it comes to successful food and wine pairing, a few simple guidelines go a long way in ensuring success. I talked about just that in last Wednesday’s posting and was rightly reminded that my seemingly elementary advice to pay attention to the “quantifiables” of tannin, acidity, sugar and alcohol presupposed some basic knowledge of what the tannin, acid, etc., levels in a given wine might be presumed to be, and that without said knowledge, the whole notion of food and wine pairing is problematic to a good many consumers.

I could not agree more, and, while my “three-minute” primer was momentarily satisfactory to my inquisitive Millennial daughter, a few prerequisite words on the fundamentals might make it more useful yet. Today’s musings about tannin will be the first of several short pieces addressing just what those “quantifiables” are and in which wines they are most likely to play a defining role.

Tannin is that astringent, puckery, palate-drying stuff that seems to suck the saliva from your mouth. It is often described as being bitter, but its effects are almost more of feel than of flavor. It is notably found in over-brewed tea, walnut skins and under ripe fruit (most particularly in persimmons), and it is found in red wine to greater or lesser extent depending on varietal type.

While tannin levels might vary according to winemaker whim, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Petite Sirah and Syrah are generally those wines most influenced by tannin, and red meats and rich cheeses are their most comfortable foils. The fats in such foods will coat the taste buds and lessen tannin’s astringent effects, and tannin will bind with protein in a way that makes them less austere in taste. High acidity in foods will conversely amplify tannin’s puckery proclivities as will overt sweetness. Fish oils combine with tannin to create bitter, somewhat medicinal flavors, although recent research suggests that elevated iron content in wine might also explain the effect.

Malbec, Merlot, Zinfandel, Grenache, Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc (depending where grown) are usually more moderate in tannin and a little easier to match with milder meats and richer vegetarian fare, although Sangiovese can surprise as in the case of burly, high-tannin Tuscans such as Brunello and Vino Nobile. The tannins in Pinot Noir are typically more temperate yet thus affording a wider range of dinnertime options from lamb and pork to meaty fish, and the Gamay grape of Beaujolais yields quaffable wines that are as close to tannin free as red wine will get.

There are those who like tannin for tannins sake and others who abhor even its slightest presence, but do bear in mind that tannin will diminish as a wine ages. It is, in fact, a key antioxidant that keeps red wine from becoming acetic as it slowly develops over time. The point, by the way, of aging fine red wine is not to get rid of its tannin, but to make the wine more complex and involving. Tannin is the protector that helps makes lengthy keeping possible.


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by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/10/2011 12:28:50 AM

Back in my neophyte days, just as I was getting into wine collecting, I chose to serve a Petite Sirah with spaghetti in a tomato-based meat sauce.

The acid in the tomatoes turned the Petite Sirah into a mouthful of dust. Sad to say that even Lancers, from my uninformed past, would have gone better.

There are reasons why some things work better than others.

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