What does it mean if a wine has “dry tannins”?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What does it mean if a wine has “dry tannins”?

—Baobin, Thailand

Dear Baobin,

Tannins are part of what gives a wine its structure. They're mouth-puckering polyphenols that come from the skins, seeds and stems of the grapes, as well as from a wine’s exposure to oak barrels. That means that most discussion of tannins is in reference to red wines (but not always), since the winemaking process for red wines includes maceration, or exposing the fermented wine to the crushed grape skins, which yields much more tannic wines.

When describing how tannins feel, most people refer to the sensation of drinking a strong cup of black tea, and that’s fair, because tea also has tannins (as do blueberries and chocolate, among other foods). Think of that drying, tugging-on-your-cheek sensation: Those are tannins.

Not all tannins present the same way: Sometimes that tug is more intense; sometimes it’s softer and more in the background, balanced by other elements. Tannins can feel polished, silky, velvety or supple. Sometimes they stick out more and feel harsher, or more rustic or chewy. When they are described as “drying” or “astringent,” that’s mostly likely a negative description, suggesting they are not well-integrated, and might be distracting.

—Dr. Vinny

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