Tannin In White Wines

The wine show judging system has many shortcomings, but the fact that the wines are not judged with food is a major drawback.

Wine’s first duty is to partner food – indeed, the wine industry never tires of telling us this, because it makes an alcoholic beverage seem more acceptable to the wowsers. But then they insist on judging it without food.

Of course, judging thousands of glasses of wine with food would be almost impossible logistically.

But this inconsistency remains, and the recent fashion for tannin in white wines is serving to underline the disconnect. Increasingly, Australian winemakers – especially those with a foot on the ‘natural’ wine bandwagon – are fermenting white grapes with the skins, seeds and stalks included. Australian tradition is to ferment whites without the solids – as clarified juice. Indeed, throughout my education at Roseworthy and my training in wine shows and elsewhere, it was emphasized that phenolics (the word generally used instead of tannin in white wine) had no place in any white wine, no matter what grape variety. According to Richard Gawel, who has done a lot of work on white wine phenolics at the Australian Wine Research Institute, says this antipathy to phenolics was probably in part because phenolics diminish varietal character, and varietal character was the obsession of the time. Also, phenolics can lead to browning in colour, which is definitely undesirable.

Sure, there will always be a place for delicate, aerial whites with spring-water texture – such as riesling and semillon – which have had their phenolics removed either by filtration or fining. The problem is, many of these wines don’t have the structure or weight to go with anything but the most delicate foods.

Phenolics in white wines, like tannins in reds, reinforces structure, enabling the wine to stand up when sipped alongside gutsier foods.

Illustrations of this are coming my way more frequently. At the 2014 Rootstock Sydney food and wine festival, there were many phenolic whites, none more educational than Pheasant’s Tears, from Georgia. Winemaker John Wurdeman prefers to call his wines made from white grapes ‘amber’ wines rather than the more accepted ‘orange’ wines. His 2011 Kisi was grippy and charmless tasted before eating, and I liked it the least of his ‘amber’ wines, but after food, I liked it the best.

Now, the magical chemistry between nebbiolo and protein-rich food is well-known: just try a tannic Barolo without eating, and again with meat or cheese, and note the difference in the tannins. But with white wines, it’s only just being rediscovered. Texture is a new word in the wine lexicon. Before technology revolutionised winemaking, most white wines would have been grippy. In Georgia, the revolution passed them by: they’ve always made their wines the same way, fermented without any human intervention in clay jars buried in the ground.

Mornington’s Garry Crittenden was into things Italian before most Aussie winemakers. Now he and his son Rollo have made a kind of ‘orange’ wine, fermenting friulano, savagnin and arneis on skins and bottling it as 2012 Crittenden Estate Oggi ($35) (tasting). I found it grippy and faintly bitter without food, but just the tiniest morsel of cheese rendered it so much more enjoyable. It would be fun to try it with roast chicken and many other dishes.

I’ve long known I have a low threshold for bitterness, so when I found two imported white wines grippy to the point of bitterness, I was keen to try them again with dinner. The 2012 Keller ‘RR’ Riesling ($89) (tasting) from the Rheinhessen and the 2012 Fattoria La Rivolta Taburno Sannio Greco (tasting) from Campania ($42.50) were transformed in the presence of food. Indeed, they both gave the impression that they went with food all the better for having those retained phenolics.

So winemakers: get a grip! There’s a place for tannin in some whites.

(But perhaps don’t bother to enter them in shows.)

*First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine, June-July 2014.

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