How do you tell the difference between tannins and acidity in wine?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I have trouble distinguishing between acidity and tannins in wine. How do you tell the difference?

—Hann, Malaysia

Dear Hann,

Acidity and tannins are present (to some degree) in all wines, and are two of the primary elements of a wine’s structure. Understandably, it can be tricky to sort out what’s behind the way a wine feels in your mouth.

Tannins come from wine grapes, primarily the skins and seeds, as well as oak barrels (and because red wines typically spend a lot more time macerating on the skins and seeds, as well as in barrels, they have a lot more tannins than white wines). Tannins are prominent in other things we consume as well, like tea and chocolate. Their presence is often indicated by a drying or tugging sensation, especially on the inside of your cheeks. Even though tannins are something you primarily feel more than you taste, a wine with a lot of tannins can lean toward bitterness or astringency.

Acidity is also naturally occurring in grapes. If you’re not sure about the sensation of acidity, just bite into a lemon wedge—the taste is sour, but the acidity causes a mouthwatering rush of juiciness. Acidity adds freshness and crispness, but too much acidity in a wine causes sour or tart notes. White wines tend to have more acidity than reds, and if you really want to dig into the science of winemaking, part of the reason for that is that most reds (and some whites) go through malolactic conversion.

You may not always know which structural element you’re picking up on in a glass of wine, but it’s a good chance that you’ll more likely notice the acidity in whites and the tannins in reds.

—Dr. Vinny

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