‘Sorry, I don’t do tannins’ was always my stock phrase when I was given a heavy red wine that I didn’t like, and to some extent it is true. When I drink red wines with high tannins all I get is a mouth full of sour. It overwhelms my tastebuds and I’m unable to distinguish any other flavours. Not, it has to be said, a pleasurable experience.
Tannins are the compounds from the skin, seeds and stalks of the grape that give red wine it’s colour. They are also transferred from the oak barrels. They have a bitter astringent quality, but apparently no real flavour, so God only knows why my tongue interprets them as the sour. They are also what allow red wines to age and provide the wine with body, depth and complexity. Most expensive red wines will have higher levels of tannins in them.
I started life as a white wine drinker, which generally do not contain many tannins. When I moved to drinking red wines I gravitated towards the young, light fruity reds, avoiding their heavier matured cousins. A list of red wines that I prefer is a list of traditionally lower tannin grape varieties like Pinot Noir and Malbec. I struggle with the bold tannic reds such as Chiantis and Bordeaux. So for a long time I just assumed I was sensitive to tannins and avoided these wines.
However living in Spain, a country where red wine dominates, I began to realise that my sensitivity to tannins was not universal. For a start I love foods high in tannins. I drink black tea and put ridiculous amounts of cinnamon on my cereals. Tea is practically a cup of pure tannins in water. Both of these are made palatable by adding something sweet like sugar or honey. I can’t drink black tea without sugar, I’ve tried on many an occasion and it is just not doable for me.
This led me to the discovery that I can tolerate a certain amount of tannins in red wine so long as they are combined with ‘sweet’ flavours and hence my love of fruit led dry red wines and the preference for young red wines as they tend to be fruitier. I also discovered that high tannin grapes make great sweet wines. I usually avoid sweet wines as they’re too sickly for me, but add in some serious tannins and you get a great mix of sweet and bitter. I have a sweet red Monastrell wine from Jumilla (a grape variety I otherwise detest) that is delicious.
This year I finally visited Rioja where heavy matured red wines are the main stay. I admit I was expecting to be disappointed, but quite the opposite occurred. Instead I had an epiphany 😇😇. I go to a lot of wine tastings in Madrid and have tried countless Riojan Crianzas and Reservas. I can sometimes tolerate the Crianzas if they’re particularly fruity but generally dislike the Reservas as too tannic and sour. What I was missing is the Gran Reservas, because the bodegas rarely bring these expensive wines to the tastings (stingy bastards). It turns out this what my palate was waiting for.
It seems the longer you leave a tannic red wine in an oak barrel and the bottle the better blended the tannins become. One Bodega in Rioja described it as ‘tamed tannins’. I like that description and will be using it from here on. So Reserva wines that I detested became wines I loved at the Gran Reserva level. That extra year or so in the barrel plus an extra three plus years in the bottle make all the difference. Not only are these wines flavoursome without the nasty bitter tastes, they are also full of body with lovely long finishes. I still prefer the fruitier versions, but found all the Gran Reservas I tried very drinkable and enjoyable, whereas for the most part the Reservas were all sour and bitter.
I left Rioja on a high. My palate can appreciate quality wines it just demands the highest level. Of course once I got back to Madrid I soon realised the downside to this epiphany. First Gran Reservas are the most expensive wines. Good thing I live in Spain where they are more economic than most places but still 30€ to 80€ a bottle. Second they do not sell Gran Reserva wines by the glass in my local bars, and unfortunately now the red wines served by the glass seemed watery and weak in comparison.
Sigh! There’s just no winning. Seems I’ll just have to drink by the bottle in future. 🤪🤪