Too Much Tannin, Acidity Can Bite
Wednesday - September 23, 2009
There are some words that sound just like the action that it describes. One of those words is bite. It is short, intense, gripping with two strong consonants on each end. Just like the two sets of teeth that accompany it. Some wines have bite. At least that’s what many people call it. But when pressed to explain what that bite actually is, it can mean different things to different people. To me bite can be only two things. It is either tannin or acidity.
To review, tannin is that compound found mostly in the skins of red grapes and in much less quantity in the grapes pits, stems and jacks. It can also come from new wood casks which can permeate both white and red wines. It feels like stringency on your gums. It is that same grainy feeling that you get when you drink a cup of over-steeped tea. So can tea bite?
There certainly are wines that have too much tannin and it can ferociously grip your palate like a wild rabid dingo. These wines suffer from over extraction. The winemaker steeped the juice of the grapes too long on the skins and consequently the wine results in tannin out of balance with the rest of the wine. Wines like this can also have too much new wood aging. Too much tannin also brings an associated bitterness to the wine that can be unbecoming. There certainly both Old and New world producers who imagine that the world is a better place with more wood flavor in their wine. I won’t name names, but some wineries age their wines for one year in new oak barrels and rack them into brand new oak barrels for the second year. That’s 200 percent new oak, people! I can imagine that a wine such as that will definitely leave a bite on your palate.
Acidity in a wine can bite. Acidity makes your palate “water.” What your mouth is trying to do is buffer all the acidity that is in the wine. So when a wine has too much acidity, it can feel quite searing and even make you pucker. The same sensation you get when you suck on a lime wedge or attack a piece of key lime pie for dessert. Wine should have some acidity for balance. Without it, the wine will feel fat and will have difficulty pairing with a broad range of foods. Too much acidity comes from underripe grapes. Unseasonably cold growing conditions and/or harvesting too early are the culprits. Another and more insipid reason for too much acidity in a wine is that a winemaker adds too much in the winemaking process. Oh, yes, winemakers can “fix” their wines by adding acidity. This is done in much of the new world and certainly in warm to hot growing regions. They can add tartaric acid to balance the wine. But if the hand is unsteady, or with miscalculation, the wine may become too tart.
Certain types of grapes have a naturally high acidity relative to others, most of them being white. Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are some of the most common. And some grapes have a higher tannic concentration than others as well. Nebbiolo, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Mourvedre all come to mind. Now, I don’t mind if the wine has tannin and acidity, but too much is not a good thing.
To me, that bites.
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