I have long been a fan of Silver Oak, known for producing cabernets ready to drink upon release but also possessing traits for extended aging. Not having any prior experience with this vintage, we opened the wine two hours before our guests arrived. An immediate sip revealed a wine tight and tannic. Decanting twice did little to reduce its tannic grip.
Pouring it into glasses 30 minutes ahead of serving made it marginally better. When the last glass was poured after having been opened for four hours, the wine had lost its tannic grip morphing into a harmonious, balanced wine.
Often in writing about pleasurable red wines, I describe them as being balanced with well-integrated tannins. What do I mean by this? Simply that the wine is pleasant when first tasted with no bitter elements that stand out, like the bitterness found in strong unsweetened tea. This does not mean tannins are not present. It simply means tannins, along with other elements found in red wine, are balanced with no one element standing out.
Tannins come from the seeds, stems and skins of red grapes and to a lesser extent from oak barrels in which red wines are aged. White wines are not generally tannic because after crushing, their clear juice is drained off from skins, seeds and stems.
Some grapes are more tannic than others. Cabernet sauvignon like that used in the 2006 Silver Oak Alexander Valley is known for being especially high in tannins. Tannin is one element that gives the wine its structure. Fruit and acid also figure into the equation.
Tannin is not a bad thing — it acts as a preservative. Wines high in tannins age well. Less tannic wines, like most white wines, tend to have less longevity.
It is a known fact that tannins change over the course of a wine’s life. Tannin is a compound known as a phenol. While the amount of tannin does not change over the wine’s life, phenols do bond together as tannic wine ages. This chemical change gives the perception of a more-balanced, less-harsh wine.
Oxygen helps mitigate tannic wine as seen in the 2006 Silver Oak after four hours of oxygen exposure. This wine aged 25 months in barrel and 15 months in bottle before release in August 2010. In 2013 the wine remains very tannic and likely should have been held for several more years before opening.
There is a school of thought that magnum-size bottles, those holding the equivalent of two standard-size wine bottles, mature more slowly. Perhaps that was a factor in why it took the 2006 so long to evolve after opening. The producer says this wine should be good until 2026. I believe this is a credible prediction of its longevity.
Tannin is a naturally occurring substance in wine. Often the harshness this substance imparts to red wine is a turnoff to red wine novices.
Giving red wine a chance to breathe before tasting makes the wine more palatable for those new to red wine. A piece of cheese also ameliorates the effect tannins have on the mouth.
Granted, most wines do not have to breathe for four hours like the 2006 Silver Oak, but most moderately priced red wines on the market do benefit from about an hour of breathing time.
Like it or not, tannin is essential to the structure of red wine. Without its presence, one might as well drink grape juice.
Email Pat Kettles at firstname.lastname@example.org