Tannic vs. Dry with Chef Bryan Bradley from the Mission Grille

One of the most misapplied terms some people use when describing wines they (do or don’t) like is the word “dry.” The term “dry” is very specific when used in reference to wine, indicating the wine has a residual sugar content of less than 1.4 percent, or approximately one gram of sugar per liter of liquid. While it is true that almost all grapes used in winemaking are sweet when picked at their peak of ripeness, the finished product rarely contains much sugar at all. During the initial fermentation process, yeasts convert most of the sugar to alcohol (ethanol) and carbon dioxide, especially in the case of the more familiar red wine varietals. Simply stated, “Dry is not sweet.”

So if “dry” isn’t sweet, what is in those red wines that makes your mouth feel like you’ve been drinking chalk dust? The answer is tannin, a naturally occurring compound found in the stems, seeds and skins of all grapes. Because most red wines obtain their color from prolonged contact with the grape skins, tannin levels in these wines will always be higher than those of any white. Tannins give wine structure and texture, and are also an excellent antioxidant and natural preservative, increasing a wine’s aging potential. Visually, tannin forms part of the natural sediment sometimes found in the bottom of the bottle.

Although tannins have no taste or perceptible smell, when drank, these compounds react with proteins in saliva, creating a drying sensation in your mouth and in the back of your throat. However, it is the same chemical reaction that makes eating red meat and drinking a wine with higher tannin levels so pleasurable, as these proteins reduce the astringency of the tannins, and tend to cleanse the palate.

Tannins can vary greatly from grape to grape, but the following list is a good general reference for tannin levels in the most popular red wines:

• Beaujolais (low tannin)

• Tempranillo (low tannin)

• Pinot Noir, from the United States (low to medium tannin)

• Burgundy (low to medium tannin)

• Sangiovese (Chianti Classico) (low to medium tannin)

• Barbaresco (low to medium tannin)

• Bordeaux (low to medium tannin)

• Merlot, from the United States (low to medium tannin)

• Zinfandel (medium to high tannin)

• Cabernet Sauvignon, from the United States or Australia (high tannin)

• Rhône, Syrah, Shiraz (high tannin)

So when you are thinking about your next purchase, consider your tastes as well as your pairing plans. Red wines with little tannin should be drunk young with lighter fare, while you should think about bigger, bolder wines with those summer steaks sizzling off your grill.

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot Columbia Valley 2007

“This merlot has a brilliant garnet red color and dark fruit with just a hint of black pepper in the nose. The palate starts off with some plum and more dark berry flavors, then turns to a more spicy note later, with the light, but noticeable tannins becoming velvety on the finish. I would recommend this merlot with the Wisconsin artisan cheese offered on our cheese plate, such as the cocoa cardona from Carr Valley, the Greenfields raw cow Saxon Creamery or any four- to nine-year aged cheddar. The beef short ribs with a red cabbage slaw and flavorful teriyaki glaze would be well complemented by the dark berry and spice. As for an entrée paring, I would suggest the duck breast with cassoulet. The smoky hints in the duck breast with the lush flavors of the cassoulet would be quite lovely with this wine.”

~ Chef Bryan Bradley, Mission Grille (Sister Bay, WI)

Appearance: brilliant garnet red

Aroma: nose of dark berry and plum with a hint of pepper spice

Flavors: lush fruit flavors of black berry, blueberry and plum with medium velvety tannins

Finishing Notes: flavors remain through a long smooth finish with the tannins being subtle but lasting

Where to Buy: Econo Foods, Main Street Market, Pick n Save, Piggly Wiggly and The Wine Cellar in Sturgeon Bay

Where to Try: The Nautical Inn, The Mission Grille, Landmark Resort and The Hillside Inn

Information about “Where to Try” and “Where to Buy” these selected wines was provided by the local wine purveyors and vendors. If you happen to also serve or sell these wines, email [email protected].

WINE:30 is written by Karl Bradley and Jody Wuollett. Karl is the general manager and self-proclaimed “sous” sommelier for the Mission Grille. Former restaurant executive and Door County native Jody is happily under-employed as a Mission Grille food server and a member of the local band Northbound.