Tannins are an integral part of the wine language, but just how do you talk about tannins? It depends on who’s doing the talking and who you’re talking to, says a panel of wine industry representatives.
Washington State’s renowned Canoe Ridge Estate Vineyard near Paterson, with its views of the Columbia River, draws visitors from around the world.
“I talk tannins every time I give a vineyard tour to visitors,” said Mimi Nye, vineyard manager at Canoe Ridge Estate, which is owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Canoe Ridge is located in Horse Heaven Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA), one of Washington’s warmest wine regions. “We’re one of the hottest sites in the state, so fruit gets really ripe,” said Nye.
When Nye talks tannins, she uses words like powdery talc, silky, smooth, and dusty.
“When visitors come during harvest, I have them pop a few berries in their mouths, spit out the seeds and chew the pulp and skins thoroughly,” she said. “If it feels smooth in the mouth, fruit is ready to pick. If it’s rough, then fruit isn’t ready.”
Nye works to impact tannins by ensuring uniform fruit through vineyard block design, pruning, shoot thinning, leaf removal, and fruit thinning.
“If clusters aren’t uniform, then all of the greenness stands out and you have unripe flavors,” she said during a panel discussion at a meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.
She also avoids overcropping fruit because it can impact ripeness.
Nye is demanding when it comes to harvest. Though some of Canoe Ridge is harvested by hand, most of the fruit is mechanically harvested.
“I’m very particular about how fruit is harvested and how clean the loads are,” she said, and added that she does not want to see leaves, stems, pedicels, and other material with the fruit. “One of my pet peeves is MOG (material other than grapes).”
She closely watches the performance of grape harvesters, noting which pick the whole berry without MOG or damaged vines. For instance, one harvester unintentionally ground up leaves, while another did a good job removing MOG but was macerating berries into juice.
In recent years, the grape harvester used at Canoe Ridge has included an optical sorter as part of the harvest operation, which helps the machine eliminate unwanted material during picking.
“My goal is to deliver a good, clean load of fruit, with whole berries and little MOG, so the winemaker can make the best wine that’s smooth, soft, and leaves a dusty, powdery mouth feel,” Nye said.
Joe Cotta, vineyard manager at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ Cold Creek Vineyard, manages tannins in fruit by controlling stress placed on the vineyard.
Cold Creek Vineyard, first planted in 1973, is one of the state’s older vineyards. The vineyard is located east of Yakima in a very warm, dry site. Silt loam soils are fertile, but gravelly, and have a low water holding capacity.
Cotta said the older vines, some now more than 40 years old, have more polished tannins than younger vines in the same vineyard. He believes the most significant difference in tannins at Cold Creek is due to different clones, not block by block variation.
“Cold Creek is a site that always has a lot of tannins in the fruit,” he said. “The tannins can be overpowering if they’re not carefully managed. That’s why we do things to limit vine stress.”
For example, he’s careful not to take deficit irrigation strategies too far.
Fruit from Cotta’s managed vineyards have plenty of flavor and intensity, so he doesn’t have to worry about creating small berries. His viticultural objectives are to slow down vine growth and avoid dehydrating berries after veraison. He’s not stingy with irrigation after veraison; he applies as much water as needed to avoid berry shriveling.
These days, fruit at Cold Creek are harvested at around 25° to 26° Brix, much lower than the 28° Brix of several years ago. “We know that if we wait too long for harvest at Cold Creek, we’ll end up with higher tannin levels,” he said.
Wines produced from Cold Creek are rich, intense, and powerful, and the tannins are said to be densely structured, mouth-coating, massive, and bold, says Cotta. By managing tannins, he can produce fruit that complements the effects of winemaking.
“The tannins are still undeniably noticeable, but they are smoother and don’t dominate the wines.”
Joe Aschbacher, senior director of global accounts west for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, spends much of his time explaining to wine buyers what they are tasting and where it was produced. He specializes in selling wine to major restaurant and hotel chains.
For the market he sells to, most wine is being consumed by the glass as a stand-alone beverage, he said, noting that a different style of wine is needed when it’s consumed alone without food. “It needs to be easy drinking and more supple than if it’s matched with a big rib eye steak in a New York steakhouse.”
He spends much of his time educating buyers. Decisions are often made by people who don’t drink wine or know little about it, he says.
“Dry is a term that always comes up when I talk about tannins,” Aschbacher said.
Aschbacher believes that Washington wines have greatly improved since his early wine marketing days more than two decades ago.
“Back then, when I opened young wines, they were pretty rough,” he said. “But today, the industry is really managing tannins well for the short and long term.”
Jeff Lindsay-Thornsen, lead sommelier at Seattle’s RN74, a restaurant featuring French-American cuisine, said the sommelier’s job is to find out what a customer wants and how much he or she is willing to spend.
“We get one shot at it,” said Lindsay-Thornsen, who makes wine by day (he’s partner in W. T. Vintners in Woodinville) and sells wine by night.
Today’s consumers are savvy and have strong wine opinions, he’s found. “If they want an oaky, red wine with oysters, it’s not my place to say no, but I do try to turn them on to a wine that will enrich their dining experience and sell more wine.”
He noted that tannins in Washington wines have greatly softened and don’t need long aging as they did in the past.
Because few understand how to talk tannins, the sommelier’s job is to interpret what the guest is expressing, he said. “That can be a real challenge. They’ll use descriptors like low tannins when they really mean sweet, and I have to figure out what they really want.”
Smart phones have become a big help in bridging the wine communication gap. Guests pull out their phones to show a picture of a wine they drank a year ago. “That helps give me context of what they mean and might like,” Lindsay-Thornsen said. •