Education

a nerdy little guide to tannin descriptions

Grapes on sorting table

If you read enough tasting notes, you will know that there is a whole language of descriptive words for things like acidity, mouthfeel, structure, and none more so than tannin. They are useful tools to describe a wine as precisely as possible. Some adjectives are fairly obvious, like silky or chewy, giving you an immediate sense of how they would play across your palate. Other terms are a little more obscure.

I was finding myself a little baffled by the majority of different tannin descriptors that I had heard or seen used…so, after talking to a number of MWs, winemakers, wine critics, etc., I decided to compile this nerdy little guide.

LEVELS

Low: soft, light, delicate, fine

Medium: moderate

High: big, massive, powerful

TYPES

Though there are no hard and fast rules, the following terms are most often used to describe a specific level of tannin. They are therefore (roughly) grouped by level.

Generally Associated with Light to Medium Tannin

Silky: Glides across the palate leaving little trace (ie. Burgundian Pinot Noir in ripe years)

Rounded: Well integrated, ripe and smooth. No harsh edges. Similar terms: supple, smooth.

Powdery: quantity of fine tannins that spread out all across the tongue & mouth (ie. Grenache dominant Châteauneuf-du-pape & Priorat)

Generally Associated with Medium to High Tannins

Velvetty: smooth textured; slightly more present than silky tannin (ie. Argentinian Malbec)

Plush: similar to velvetty, with a notion of richness/ sweetness (ie. Merlot – Pomerol, St. Emilion, Napa Valley, etc.)

Fine grained: firmly structured yet smooth (ie. High quality left bank Bordeaux)

Polished: smooth, seamless. Like silky but with more structure (ie. Zinfandel, some modern Rioja styles).

 Sinewy: like muscular but slightly more lean (ie. St. Estèphe)

Chalky: a shade rougher and thicker than powdery (ie. good quality Chianti, certain Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignons)

Grainy: slightly astringent, rough edged like sand (ie. cheap Chianti). Similar terms: sandy.

 Generally Associated with Very High Tannins

Chewy: coats the sides of the mouth, feels present and weighty enough to chew (ie. Douro red blends, Côte Rôtie, Hermitage)

Chunky: big, powerful and bulky…like chewy but bigger (ie. Barossa Shiraz, Aglianico)

Muscular: powerfully chalky tannins; generally associated with young wine. Similar terms: assertive (ie. Premium Napa Cabernet Sauvignon).

 Grippy: tannin that sticks to the sides of your mouth (ie. Barolo)

 Angular: tannins that hit one particular spot on your palate; jagged (ie. Bordeaux in lean years)

General Descriptors

These terms can apply to one or more tannin levels.

Unresolved vs. Resolved: Very firm, tightly knit referring to a young, highly tannic wine vs. softer, more mellow tannins after a period of ageing

Ripe: lack of any green, astringent or drying sensation

Firm: solid, unyielding. Generally medium + to high tannin wines. Similar terms: dense, tightly-knit.

Broad: opposite of firm. Generally medium to medium minus tannin wines.

Negative Descriptors

Often due to under ripe tannins or excessive extraction of bitter tannins (from seeds and/ or stems)

Harsh: rough and aggressive like sandpaper; drying. Similar terms: hard

Rustic/ Coarse: similar to harsh or aggressive, but slightly less damning

Aggressive: overly dominant, throwing off balance. Unpleasant. Similar terms: rigid.

Astringent: bitter and drying

Stalky: green, unripe, astringent

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4 Comments

  • Anthony Taylor
    February 13, 2016 at 8:35 am

    Great idea! Thanks!

  • Lee Inkster
    February 16, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    My wine vocabulary just improved! Thanks for making it easier to find words for those subtle tastes!

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