For some time now, red wines have been getting softer, more approachable, made in a style that satisfies popular demand. No more mouth-puckering tannins to contend with, no harsh astringency. But is this trend towards smoother, less tannic red wines a good thing?
Economic factors, consumer preferences and new techniques in vinification have all contributed to the trend. Traditionally, red wines from Bordeaux, Chateauneuf du Pape, Bandol and Barolo needed long cellaring before they were ready to drink. But as wine consumption grew and production increased, holding on to stock became a costly business for producers and wine merchants. At the same time, the new generation of drinkers had neither the patience nor the cellars to mature their wines. They wanted fine wines to arrive ready to drink.
So winemaking began to change. By the mid 80s, the drive towards earlier maturing wines, helped by tannin management techniques such as micro-oxygenation—the controlled oxidisation that accelerates ageing—had brought about softer wines, while more recently the fashion for using riper grapes has led to increased sugar and alcohol levels.
Consumers raised on New World wines made with riper fruit tend to shun tannins, which can have a hard-edged feel in the mouth and, to some, a bitter flavour. But when deprived of their tannic structure, these fruit-driven wines often lack the texture and grip that lends interest to what we are drinking. They also lack the rarefied and complex aromas of bottle-aged wines.
There are good and bad tannins, however. Some are dry; some are coarse and chewy; others are beautifully fine-grained and silky. These latter tannins are likely to be found in riper Bordeaux vintages, such as 2000 and 2005. But the pH of the wine also has an impact: high acidity reinforces astringency and the perceived bitterness of tannin, which is why, as a rule, red wines are lower in acidity than whites. (Notice that low tannin wines like Beaujolais can be tart and fruity.)
Tannins are important in adding interest to what we are drinking. They may also be responsible for red wine’s reported health benefits. Studies in France and Denmark show that moderate drinking of red wines is associated with various health benefits and increased life expectancy. Mere correlations don’t tell us why this should be the case but Roger Corder, a professor at the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, has suggested that the most important component in red wines for reducing heart disease is a group of micronutrients called procyanidins. These are found in young, tannin-rich wines, which are produced by prolonging the contact between the grape skin and the pressed juice, allowing the juice to extract the colour and tannin. Over-extraction can lead to harsh, bitter tastes but with too little extraction you don’t get the colour or the benefits of the tannin.
So what is the remedy? Seek out high-tannin wines, especially those made from grapes with the highest levels of active procyanidins. Top of the list are Madiran wines made from the Tannat grape, and wines from Montefalco made from Sagrantino, the grape variety with the highest quantities of procyanidins. A fine example is the 2008 Sagrantino di Montefalco from the Collepiano Arnaldo-Caprai: a powerful, dense wine that is more like a meal than a drink. High altitude wines also tend to keep their procyanidins better, so look for structured wines from good Argentinian, Chilean and South African producers.
The important thing to remember is that high tannin does not have to mean harsh wine. Tannins can add definition and structure to a wine, as well as the potential for graceful ageing. And in moderate amounts, they may do the same for the drinker.
Barry Smith is Director of the Institute of Philosophy, University of London