Posted On 26 October 2023

What are tannins?

Tannins are natural polyphenols found in all plants including grapevines. They are known to have a bitter and astringent taste which makes them undesirable to most animals and humans. For plants, tannins act as a natural defense mechanism against microbes and predators. Animals avoid eating plants with a lot of tannins because of their taste and their inability to digest them. Tannins bind with proteins and react with stomach enzymes. When someone eats a plant rich in tannins the tannins bind with the plant’s proteins making them hard to digest. Tannins also react with the enzymes in the stomach that help us digest food, making it even harder to process.

On the other hand, tannins when consumed in small quantities and especially tannins from grapes can be very beneficial to health. In wine, tannins also improve the texture and flavor of our wine by making them more complex and exciting.  Tannins have antioxidant properties which means they can protect us from various diseases such as cancer, thrombosis and various heart problems.

Where do wine tannins come from?

In wine, tannins come from the grape skins, seeds, stems and wood (oak barrels). Tannins are found in larger quantities in red wines because during their production the juice is fermented with the skins. Without the skins you would not be able to get color, tannins, and a lot of the varietal flavors. Some grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Maratheftiko and Shiraz have more tannins while others such as Pinot Noir, Gamay and Mavro have less. The amount of tannin extracted depends on the time of maceration (how long we soak the juice with the skins), the amount of alcohol, temperature and its interaction with other wine components (e.g proteins).

Inside a wine barrel at fikardos winery
Inside a used wine barrel. Barrels are also a source of tannins.

Why are tannins important for red wines?

Tannins are extremely important for red wines. They offer weight, texture and flavor complexity to a wine. In addition, tannins are one of the main components responsible for the longevity of a wine. Tannins as mentioned before have antioxidant properties which means they can protect a wine against oxidation. As a result the fruity flavors and color of a wine can be preserved longer.

How can tannins affect our food pairing choices?

When tannins react with proteins in our mouth they become less bitter and astringent. For instance, the first sip of red wine always seems “softer” than the next. This happens because the proteins in our saliva make the wine seem “softer”. If you continue to drink that wine without any pause then the wine will become tougher.

The same thing happens when we eat food. A tannic red wine will taste tougher if we consume it with boiled vegetables (lag of proteins), but will taste amazing with beef (rich in fatty proteins). Tannins in a way help us enjoy rich in protein and fat meals because they attach themselves to the proteins and strip them from our mouth. This leaves the mouth clean and ready for the next bite.

The unpleasant taste of bitterness and astringency of tannins can be increased with some flavors. Sweetness, umami*, chili heat and bitterness can increase the unpleasant tannic flavors. On the other hand saltines and acidity in food helps them decrease. This is why tannic red wines pair so well with beef steak, lamb shank and beef burgers. For most of these dishes salt is used during the preparation and cooking. If we combine this with the tannin’s ability to bind with fatty proteins then we have a winning recipe.

*Umami: A savory taste very hard to isolate because it is usually present with other flavors such as salt. Think of how cooked mushrooms, oysters, seasoning cubes (msg) and soy sauce taste, that “yummy” flavor is Umami. Its harsh reaction with bitterness (tannins) can be reduced or balanced with the addition of acid or salt.

So what about Fish and Vegetables?

The above does not mean we can only enjoy red wine with meat. Red wines can also be paired with plenty of vegetables and fish. We just need to find the right red wine for that dish or change the way we prepare it.

The simplest solution would be to choose a very light, low tannin red wine such us Pinot Noir or Corvina. These wines can go well with seafood dishes like grilled tuna or seafood stew. If you prefer vegetables, then a dish made out of grilled eggplants, zucchinis and sweet red peppers would also be fine.

But what happens with red wines that have more tannins like a Maratheftiko, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz? These wines tent to have a lot of tannins and are medium or full body. They can easily overpower vegetarian dishes and would feel very metallic with most fish.

The following are some simple rules we can follow to solve the above problems.

Just like with meat we will first need plenty of proteins to help us with tannins. For vegan dishes that means black beans, lentils, white beans, tofu and tempeh (fermented soybeans). For fish dishes that could be salmon, tuna, halibut, octopus and anchovies.

Now that we have a good base we will move on to the most important part, flavor and intensity. To do that, we could add to our dish ingredients rich in umami flavor such as mushrooms (add texture also), tomatoes, cheese (vegan or not), seaweed, toasted nuts (pine, sesame), asparagus, carrot, soy sauce, miso, sweet potatoes, garlic and avocado. Now our meal will have a more meaty texture and savory taste. Umami as mentioned before does not pair well with tannins so we will need to add salt and/or acidity (e.g lemon) to bring balance.

To turn up the intensity even more we could also add some powerful spices and herbs. These could be cumin seeds, smoked paprika, rosemary, thyme, black pepper, mustard seeds, cinnamon, curry, cardamom and saffron.

Food pairing example

Fikardos Maratheftiko 2016 paired with Red Wine and Tomato Octopus (Greek Kokkinisto Octapodi)

The 2016 Maratheftiko is a medium body wine with a lot of tannins. It has intense flavors of dark plum, blackberry, cherry, violet, and charred wood. So our target here is to pair all these components with our dish. In the above recipe the main ingredients we are using are: Octopus, olive oil, tomatoes, red wine, balsamic vinegar, onions, black pepper corns, allspice and bay leaves.

First, we will need proteins and fat which we get from the octopus and olive oil. Next, we will need a lot of flavor and especially something with a lot of umami. This will come from the cooked tomatoes and onions. The next step will be to balance out the harsh effect that umami gives to tannins so in this case we use red wine (adds acidity and a familiar flavor), balsamic vinegar and salt. To increase the flavor intensity even more we are using black pepper corns, allspice and bay leaves.

We took something that traditionally does not pair well with tannic red wines (octopus) and transformed it into something that has all the necessary tools to fight back.

Red wine octopus

Let us know what else you would like us to answer for you. Leave your questions or comments here

by Fikardos Fikardos, assistant winemaker.