Wine Pairing 101: How Tannins Bridge Each Bite and Sip

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It’s only natural to wonder how or why the blackberry, plum or other fruit flavors pair with, say, a steak. On your first bite and sip, you’ll quickly find that they do—but pairing food and wine is as much about feel as it is about flavors, and the effect a wine has on your palate as you sip it. Pair for feel, and you’ll have an even better dining experience.

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Here’s a way to think about it: If you practice yoga, you use a mat with little grooves on the surface, right? Those grooves give you grip. Conveniently “grip” is the same term that wine experts use to describe a red wine’s tannins. Tannins are polyphenols, natural compounds in wine that quickly bind to proteins; your saliva contains proteins, so tannins give your palate the feeling of drying out. (Ever let a cup of tea steep for too long, take a sip, and it tastes really dry and bitter? That’s the effect of tannins, too, as they’re in most plants.)

Tannins grip your saliva and prime your palate for that next bite of food, just as your feet grip the yoga mat. The more difficult the pose, the more grip you want the mat to have. And the more tannic a wine, the more likely it is to pair with richer, more flavorful food—and therefore make its flavors pop after each sip of wine. Below are a few pairings we suggest!

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Just how important a factor are tannins in pairing? Below are the backs of two of our tasting cards that we include with every Blue Apron Wine shipment. Forgetting flavors for a moment, each and every wine, red or white, can be thought of in these four aspects in terms of their food-pairing options: Tannins, sweetness, body and acidity. One of the wines below is red, one is white. Can you guess which is which and, therefore, would pair better with a rich, juicy steak?

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In terms of sweetness, body and acidity, the wines are very similar. But tannins are the key differentiator. Most white wines don’t contain tannins because they’re found in the skins of grapes. Red wines are made by soaking the grape juice along with the skins to extract the red color and tannins; white wines are made by pressing the grapes so there’s no contact with the skins and, therefore, no tannin extraction into the wine.

So if you guessed that the wine on the left, above, is the red wine, you’re right! And you’re also right that this is the wine that’d pair great with a steak. The wine’s tannins will not only help cut the richness of the meat, they’ll dry out and cleanse your palate. Take another sip, and now you’ll enjoy the wine’s flavors and textures on their own—and you’ll especially enjoy the next bite of meat!

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When you’re considering pairings, definitely think about complementary flavors in the food and the wine. But remember that the effect of the wine’s core components on your palate, particularly the amount of tannins, is just as important a factor—sometimes, the most important one.

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