A Tannin Lesson From Professor Mondavi

In this week’s column in The Washington Post, I wrote about Charles Krug in Napa County, Calif., and the recent upgrades to its vineyards and winery. When I spoke to Peter Mondavi, Jr , about his family’s efforts, he provided extra detail to show how these modernizations translate into changes in the wine.

Peter Mondavi Jr. Class is in session.

In the vineyard, Mondavi said, dense planting and clonal selection of the new vines is important. Krug went from 700 vines per acre to 1,500. “That increases competition among the vines for water and other nutrients,” Mondavi said. “It doesn’t give them free rein to build up big lush fruit and quantity. You want to stress the vines somewhat, so cabernet is planted in rockier soil. Cover crops further compete for moisture. We deficit irrigate, only watering the vines when we see them getting too stressed.”

The winery overhaul includes new fermenting tanks, ranging from one with a 4-ton capacity to another that can handle 20 tons. Smaller fermenters (and Virginia wineries chuckle at “four tons” being considered small) give the winemakers more control over the process. They can ferment grapes from individual vineyard plots separately, rather than blend them immediately into a greater mass of wine, thereby preserving the flavor of that individual terroir.

Such lots can be bottled as single-vineyard wines or blended into a larger wine, but in keeping these smaller lots separate, the winemaker has more flexibility in determining the final blend. Some lots may get longer cold soaks before pressing to extract more color and tannin from the grape skins; others may be handled in a way that preserves their vibrancy and acidity. The theory is, the wine can be more expressive of place this way, and if handled properly, the winemaker may not have to do so many “corrections” to the final wine by adjusting acidity, for example.

Overall, the effect is “more focused fruit, bigger, richer, with better color from the clones and grape varieties,” Mondavi said. “That results in more intense but more refined tannins — not the dry, rustic tannins on the palate — and wines that are more palatable early in their development.”

Okay, here we get into some wine-geek speak. What are “rustic tannins” vs “refined tannins”? This is actually a key to understanding and appreciating modern winemaking, in which wines are intended for early drinking rather than long-term cellaring. Tannins are what gives red wines structure; as the wine ages, the tannins tend to connect and drop out (forming sediment), leaving a softer, more approachable wine. Tannin basically makes your teeth itch. If you taste a young red and feel as if you’ve been walloped in the mouth by a baseball bat, those are “rustic” tannins. We used to say, “This wine needs to age.”

Softer, more refined tannins will creep up on you at the finish, leaving a slight but perceptible drying sensation on your tongue and teeth as the flavor fades. In other words, you might find yourself hankering for another sip.

“Rustic tannins are very drying on the palate,” Mondavi explained. “For example, dissolve an aspirin in a glass of water, then drink it. Refined tannins, on the other hand, are almost a tactile sensation, more of a pleasurable way, not the type of wine you taste and say, ‘Oh my gosh, in 10 years it might be great.’ A combination of refined tannins and rich fruit makes for a very satisfying mouth-filling experience.”

Thus endeth the lessen from professor Mondavi. Now go forth and study.

This article appeared on The Washington Post’s “All We Can Eat” blog on August 17, 2011.

About Dave McIntyre

Wine columnist for The Washington Post, co-founder of DrinkLocalWine.com, and blogger at Dave McIntyre's WineLine (dmwineline.com).
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