Descriptors for tannin

I've always understood that tannin is experienced as a purely textural element in wine (or tea, etc), completely divorced from flavor elements. That said, I continue to struggle with many of the descriptors I see in reviews in many (even all) mainstream publications. Of course I get descriptors like 'sandy' and 'gritty', and there are words like 'earthy', 'firm' and 'polished' which seem less exacting but in the context of a review one can extrapolate. But then I get into territory that I personally find much more challenging: 'savory', 'supple', 'juicy', 'ripe', 'succulent', and even 'sweet' (?!). Either I'm misunderstanding the nature of tannin and how we experience it, or I need to broaden my knowledge and vocabulary to include some of these more seeming esoteric descriptions. Any enlightening words or resource ideas would be appreciated. Thanks for your help! 

  • As I see words like firm, polished, supple, and succulent to be textural descriptors, I don't think they really stretch the bounds very far. Firm would simply be a nice way of saying "strong", though I tend to use it when they're strong but not overbearing. Polished and supple would imply particularly well integrated and/or "fine". So, they're there, but either aged out or not a significant player in the experience. This is not a "tannic" wine, this is, perhaps, a wine with some tannin.

    Ripe tannins are typically stated as such to contrast to "green" tannins which are rarely desirable in a wine. This would come from grapes that achieved phenolic ripeness and, thus, not only got sugar levels up, but the seeds and skins (and possibly stems) were fully mature. Green tannins can be unpleasantly bitter and, well, green. So, ripe, juicy, and I guess sweet (though that admittedly does stretch things a bit) would imply the opposite.
  • In reply to Charlie Deal:

    That is incredibly helpful, thank you. I knew I was coming up short in how I was thinking about this.
  • Hey Martin,
    While I was working in Chinon, we put a lot of time and effort into trying to rethink our barrel program, tasting through each piece and demi muid 4x a year to try to better understand which tonnelier, forrest, toast level and barrel size best matched each of our sites. I was taught to describe the tannins as fat, round, drying, astringent, or powerful. Without tasting the same wine with you it would be hard to figure out how the terms divide different tannin sensations, and I think that unless a group of people standardize their palates together carefully over many thousands of tastings, it might be impossible for these really minute differences to be meaningful and consistent. BUT if you start to associate a set of personal tannin descriptors with the texture sensations that you feel, and you try to be consistent with your own descriptions, you'll find a rich vocabulary to distinguish one of the most important factors in understanding a wine's process and quality level/price. Outside of a court blind tasting, I personally feel that it doesn't really do a service to a wine (or your guests) to simply describe its tannins as somewhere from low-high. Your own tasting notes will be a richer source of information and will help you to make better decisions for your guest's palate if you develop a consistent and nuanced set of tannin descriptors and start to apply it to every wine you taste. So I'd encourage you to find your own set and have some fun figuring out how that informs your feelings about wines as you taste going forward!

  • All excellent responses so far.

    I love using "silky" (think a mellow aged red that had medium tannins to begin with) and "velvet(y)" (think aged red that had elevated tannins to begin with - they're still present, just luxurious, lush and softer/tamed.)
  • In reply to Vlada Stojanov:

    Charles Smith labeled his merlot as Velvet and got a check with lots of zeros when he sold said label, so it must be worth something, right?
  • I would not really look to the media to describe tannins. I would instead find adjectives that work with the food you serve in your restaurant. The wine in your cellar is your wine. I would focus on ways to connect that wine to the food your Chef creates... rather than having others tell you what those wines should be.
  • In reply to Jeremy Eubanks:

    Now he can kick back and live a luxurious, comfy (dare I say plush?) life.