Learning how to distinguish between the different tastes and structural elements in wine is an essential part of the wine tasting process. As a beginner, it’s easy to confuse wine tannins with wine acidity and assume that everything you taste falls along a single spectrum.
In fact, there are a variety of characteristics of wine, each with its own spectrum of intensity. These characteristics are sweetness, acidity, tannin, body, and alcohol. The easiest ones to confuse are tannin and acidity.
Learning how to taste the difference between these two characteristics allows you to further refine your palate, and choose the best wine to suit your particular taste.
Distinguishing Tannins From Acid: Their Core Differences
When learning how to distinguish wine tannins from acid, it’s helpful to first learn what they are and where they come from.
Tannins are chemical compounds — molecules of varying sizes and shapes that bind to proteins in your mouth and cause an astringent, sometimes bitter, drying sensation. They are naturally found in many things such as tea, coffee, chocolate and wine. The tannins in wine come from the skins, stems, and seeds of the wine grape.
This is why red wine is much more tannic than white wine – there’s more contact between the juice and the skins, seeds, and stems of the grape. Oak barrels that are sometimes used for ageing can also impart their tannins into the wine.
Acid is also a compound found in wine, but it contributes freshness and causes salivation. Furthermore, acids are generally sour, rather than bitter. Finally, while tannins are found in some, usually red, wines, acidity is found in all wines.
Acidity is a necessary structural component that balances sweetness, alcohol and the bitterness of tannins. Too much acidity can make a wine seem tart and light, while too little acidity can make a wine taste cloying and clumsy. Well-balanced acidity is the key to making a smooth, drinkable wine.
The Important Roles They Both Play
Tannin and acid are both extremely important characteristics of wine. They add balance and complexity, and each do their part in making every vintage of wine unique. In addition to their taste, they each play a unique role in the winemaking process.
The more tannins in wine, the better it ages. Research on tannins also suggests that it brings its own unique health benefits. The polyphenols present in the tannic skins, seeds, and stems of grapes have been shown to inhibit the growth of plaque on blood vessels, lowering our risk for cardiovascular disease.
Wine acidity plays a central role in determining how a wine feels on our tongue. A wine with more acid feels refreshing and bright. Sweeter, less acidic wines feel heavier and fuller-bodied. When someone says that wine is crisp or fresh, they are referring to its great acidity.
There are several different types of acids in wines. The most common is tartaric acid which as the name suggests is tart, but is also a powerful antioxidant which helps a wine age.
As wine ages, tartaric acid crystals, which are insoluble in alcohol, precipitate out of the wine and are deposited at the bottom of the bottle. Malic (think apples) and citric acid (think lemons) are also naturally found in grapes and these acids also contribute freshness and tartness.
The last type of acid found in wine is lactic acid (the acid found in milk). This is a softer type of acidity and it contributes roundness and a rich mouthfeel. Unlike the other three acids above, lactic acid is not found naturally in grapes but is created during the winemaking process.
Lactic acid bacteria essentially eat the tart malic acid compounds and convert them into softer lactic acid. Most red wines and some whites, like Chardonnay, are allowed to go through this process, which is called malolactic fermentation (MLF).
Tasting the Difference Between Tannins In Wine And Acidity
It’s very easy for novice wine lovers to get confused about the taste and sensation of tannins vs acidity. It’s different for every palate, but generally, tannin tastes bitter and astringent. It gives your mouth a ‘dry’ feeling, and after drinking wine that’s very tannic, you may still feel a residual bitterness throughout your mouth.
Although wine acidity may seem similar to tannin, it is sour rather than bitter. These two tastes are sensed at different places on the tongue, with bitterness noted at the very back and sourness noted at the sides.
Furthermore, acidity has the reverse effect on our tongue and mouth. While tannins make our mouth feel dry, acid makes our mouth water, making us salivate more. Wines that are more acidic feel lighter, while a wine that contains less acid is usually sweeter and feels heavier.
Deciding on the Perfect Wine for Your Palate
Learning to differentiate between tannins in wine and wine acidity gives you a much more specialized vocabulary, which you can use to find the exact wines that fit your palate.
At Small Winemakers, we love the challenge of helping you find a wine with the perfect balance of tannins and acid to suit your unique palate. Our shop is full of exceptional vintages, and we can deliver a case to your door within 3-5 days. Our expert staff are always available to help pick the best wine for your taste and budget.