If folks tend to refer to Rick Longoria with a certain reverence, it’s not just that he produces some truly awesome wines. He is also one of the pioneers of the Santa Ynez wine country. He started working in the area in 1976, and founded his Longoria winery in 1982. We just happened to catch Mr. Longoria in his Lompoc tasting room, so, like, we’re going to turn down an opportunity to ask the man about something wine-related? Of course not! And since Mr. Longoria is all about longevity and structure, then what better question to ask him than “What are tannins?”
If you’ve ever sipped some red wine and felt a sharp, almost drying sensation in your mouth, then what you’re noticing are the tannins in the wine. But what are they? Where do they come from? And why is some tannin good, but too much is bad?
“Tannins are a natural compound found in the skins of all grapes,” Longoria said.
But, he explained, since white grapes are pressed immediately after they are crushed, the juice doesn’t pick up the tannin compounds. Red grapes, on the other hand, are crushed but the juice is left with the fruit skins while it is being fermented, which gives red wines their color and also tannins.
“Red wines pick up the tannins from the skins of red grapes,” Longoria said. “And every variety, characteristically, has different levels of tannin. Pinot noir, for example, is one of the varieties that has the least amount of tannin. And going up the spectrum, some of the syrahs, cabernet sauvignon, the Bordeaux varietals, have higher levels of tannin.”
Longoria also pointed out that tannins are not tannic acid. They’re actually poly-phenols and not acid components. In addition, how much tannin ends up in a wine is something that the winemaker can adjust by prolonging or shortening the contact the juice has with the crushed grapes.
“Tannins help in the ageability of red wines,” Longoria said. “They act as a kind of shield that – layers of shields – that as the years progress, they get bound up.”
So as a red wine gets older, it gets softer, and hopefully the amount of tannin ends up balancing out the flavor of the fruit.
“The ideal thing would be to have just the exact number of tannin levels, let’s say tannin layers, so that when the fruit of a wine finally gets to a point of ultimate maturation, let’s say 15 years, that last layer of tannin has been resolved. So then you have this perfect, harmonious integration of the fruit flavor, maturation and there’s not more tannin to interfere with it.”
Longoria also noted that some winemakers will miss the mark and allow too much tannin into a wine, with the result that the fruit is gone, but the tannin is still there. And that is why some older wines are beyond marvelous and others just make your teeth feel dry.