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Tannin: The bitter, yet beneficial, component of dry reds

Since it is generally agreed that all of the world's finest non-dessert wines are dry wines, it is important to recognize that becoming a lover of wine and not liking dry wine are rather incompatible ideas.

It's kind of like wanting to be a race car driver, but not liking to go fast.

When wines are allowed to ferment until they become fully dry, their flavor will be made up from the balance, or lack thereof, of the basic elements of wine. While a wine can taste sweet, I would not say that a wine can taste dry. Dry is a characteristic of the wine, to be sure, but it is not a flavor component.

One of the components that you most definitely will taste is tannin.

Tannin is a bitter substance found in grape seeds, stems and skins.

It is much more pronounced in red wines and often barely present in whites because of the lack of contact with the skins during the making of white wines. If you ever accidentally bite into a grape seed and don't like what you taste, that's tannin.

For many, especially those new to wine, strong tannins equal bad-tasting wine. To them, wine tastes bitter, and they readily accept the notion that they don't like wine and leave it at that.

Interestingly enough, tannin is the very thing that makes truly great, well-aged wine possible. Its role as a natural preservative allows those great Bordeauxs to taste wonderful after 20 years in the cellar.

If you were to taste those same wines after only a year, however, you would never imagine that people pay good money for them. They are so tannic when young that even professional tasters don't like them. They just know what they are looking for to determine the potential for future greatness.

Many of today's value-priced red wines are made in such a way that tannins are mild and the wines are quite approachable, even after only a year or two. Even so, certain grapes are higher in tannins naturally, while others simply contain less. These are often the wines that bridge the gap for folks wanting to go deeper into wine appreciation.

Pinot noirs tend to have lighter tannins and are very popular, as do the wines of Beaujolais and Rioja. These wines are more fruity and easier to enjoy by those who are put off by more tannic offerings like cabernet sauvignon, syrah and shiraz.

When drinking a wine with a higher level of tannin, decanting the wine an hour or so before dinner will help to soften it. Decanting simply involves pouring the wine from the bottle into a decanter, thus exposing it to air.

Write me with your thoughts or questions, at brian.goodell@morris.com. Until next time, happy pours.

SideBar: Wine Guy's Pick of the Week

A red wine with definite character and not a lot of tannin is Nero D'Avola, and this past week we drank a bottle of the 2005 vintage from Cusumano with Sicilian-style meatballs and orecchiette with pistachio pesto, a recipe featured in the September issue of Food and Wine.

At around $12, this red from Sicily is a steal. While not overly complex, and not one to cellar away for years, it makes an excellent partner to nearly any pasta dish, and the regional affinity with the dish mentioned above was unmistakable.

Got a tip, tasting note or review? Write me at brian.goodell@morris.com or visit www.myspace.com/morriswineguy.