Tannin Trouble & Cali Chablis

By / Magazine / March 31st, 2008 / 2

I’m new to wine and am still having trouble coming to grips with what tannins are and where they come from. Can you help?

Though I wasn’t much of a chemistry student (too much time spent with a calculator and not enough with a Bunsen burner), tannins are pretty straightforward. If you’ve ever taken a sip of over-steeped tea or twisted the stem off an apple with your teeth and felt that astringent, bitter impression on your palate, you’re already well on your way to a doctorate in tannins.

Tannins are natural chemical compounds found in the skins, seeds and, yes, stems of fruit and in other organic materials like tree bark and tea leaves. Though white wines rarely come into contact with tannin-carrying compounds during their making, the juice for red wines is exposed to the grape skins for extended periods of time (that’s where the colour comes from, kids) and, during pressing, to the seeds and stems.

Tannins in the oak of the barrels also have their way with the wine during the months the liquid spends inside. While it might seem like an unwanted invasion, tannins are a good thing — they provide red wine with the structure and complexity that allows it to age and develop in the bottle.

Unfortunately, if you’re into drinking your wine tout de suite rather than keeping it (and you’d be with the majority of today’s wine fans), you’ll find that young tannic bottles can come across as bitter and major-league mouth-puckering. That’s why so many wine makers (both New and Old World) are focusing their efforts on creating balanced chug-a-luggable vino with more balanced tannins. Will it age as long and as well as the versions made a decade ago? Only time will tell — and that’s if anybody really cares.

I really enjoy California Chablis. Is Chablis a grape variety or a region?

There’s no such thing as a Chablis grape. In fact, Chablis is a geographic location — but it’s nowhere near California or any part of the United States for that matter.

Located in northern Burgundy, the French appellation of Chablis is a collection of vineyards that surround a town of the same name. The crisp, minerally white wines, made from the Chardonnay grape, have been a study in austere sophistication for centuries.

The trouble is that Chablis is relatively easy to spell and pronounce, even for us lazy North Americans. Combine that with its association with very high quality wines and you’ve got a name ripe (and I’m not talking about the grapes) for ripping off. Its nearby neighbours in Champagne know that story far too well. They’ve had to endure other countries stealing their méthode champenoise thunder by slapping their appellation name on liquid fizzy crap for decades.

Chablis is no different in the use-and-abuse department; California is the greatest offender, with Canada a close second. What has made matters worse is that what’s mistakenly being referred to as Chablis typically tastes like a junky, jug-style wine that relies on sugary sweetness and a cheap price to draw in the mislead masses.

Moreover, classy age-worthy French Chablis has one more thing in common with its Champagne cousin: it tends to be pretty expensive. The fact that the average wine consumer has never tried the real stuff ends up perpetuating the myth that the impostors aren’t half bad.

So please do me and everyone who loves wine a favour. Stick to whites from California made with grapes grown in one of the state’s many respected regions and leave the making of Chablis to the French.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Fresh, funny and down-to-earth, Peter Rockwell is the everyman's wine writer. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia he's worked in the liquor industry for over 30 years and has written about wine, spirits & beer since graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in 1986. His reviews and feature articles have been published in Tidings, Vines, Occasions, Where and on Alliant.net to name a few; he has been a weekly on-air wine feature columnist for both CBC-TV and Global Television and his wine column 'Liquid Assets' appeared weekly in two of Nova Scotia's daily newspapers, 'The Halifax Daily News' and 'The Cape Breton Post.' Today Peter's irreverent answer man column 'Bon Vivant' appears each month in Tidings Magazine and his weekly 'Liquid Assets' column is published across Canada in editions of the METRO newspaper. When not drinking at home, and at work, Peter travels the globe looking for something to fill his glass and put into words.

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