Richard Ehrlich's beverage report: T is for tastings, tannin, and tears

The marathon, even superhuman, efforts it takes to bring you this column - revealed
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JANCIS ROBINSON, currently starring in BBC 2's highly enjoyable series Vintner's Tale, says in her book Confessions of a Wine Lover that anyone lucky enough to make a living from wine should pinch himself every day. I heartily agree. But that won't keep me from taking a brisk stroll down Complainer's Lane.

Several times in the last week I have turned up late at my children's school with hands stained purple and teeth blackened. Six-year-old Ruth asks me why I am late again. "I've been at a wine tasting," I reply. A parent standing nearby overhears, gives me a knowing look, and makes a comment whose general meaning can be paraphrased as: "It's a tough life, isn't it, getting paid to have fun."

Outside the classroom I can't reply, so I'll do it here. Tasting 100 or 125 wines is many things - fascinating, challenging, stimulating. But it is not fun. If you have to take away an impression which can be communicated in language, it is gruelling. Whenever I ask somebody how many wines they can intelligently taste in one go, they usually answer what I would: 30 or 40, maybe 50. The ideal approach would be to do the job over two or three days. But usually we don't. Hence the marathon sessions.

These laments - which have now ended, you'll be delighted to know - are not designed to set off a flood of sympathetic post. Their purpose could be vividly illustrated by a peek into my oral cavity at the end of a big tasting. The whole place is a hotbed of tannins. Tannins soft, tannins ripe, tannins chewy or astringent - the adjectives could go on. I abbreviate it as "T" in my tasting notes, and my recent paper harvest is covered with agonised scrawls of that letter.

Tannin in wine is a fascinating and complicated subject. It is not a single chemical but the common name for a diverse group of compounds, found in various plants and with variable composition. One thing they all have in common, however, is the ability to "bind" protein - shrink it, render it less soluble and less likely to decompose. This is why it's used for tanning. It's also the reason that milk poured into hot tea (another mega-tannic beverage) forms a skin as its proteins knit together.

The tannins in grapes are mostly phenols, and found mostly in and just under the skin of the fruit; that's why they're found almost exclusively in red wine, which is fermented in prolonged contact with the skins. Some tannins also come from oak, if the wine is matured in oak.

Tannin is essential to the ageing process, in the course of which it should soften and mellow. But when it's young and astringent, watch out. As Harold McGee says in his great book On Food and Cooking: "The tannins in wine 'tan' our tongue and cheeks in the way they do leather; they cross- link with the surface proteins and cause the tissues to contract slightly." This is the famous puckering effect. Multiply it across a dozen young Chianti, or Australia Cabernet Sauvignon, or Cotes- du-Rhone, and you have a mouth that's begging for mercy.

In a small personal protest against that styptic onslaught, I am making this week's column a tannin-free zone: four pukka wines without a trace of pucker. First, Grant Burge Old Vine Semillon 1997, Barossa Valley (Unwins, pounds 7.99). Ample richness in balance with complex citrus flavours of lemon, tangerine, and sweet grapefruit. Delicious. Second, Marlborough Dry Riesling 1998, Kim Crawford (at around pounds 7 from Liberty Wines, 0171 720 5350). Aromatic but fresh on the nose, delicate but complex floweriness on the palate. Wonderful stuff.

Even more wonderful is Tokay Pinot Gris Vieilles Vignes 1996, Zind Humbrecht (Wine Rack, pounds 16.79, limited availability). This already has a classically rich, honeyed nose which follows through on the palate with deeply fragrant, smooth-textured, mouth-coating fruit. In a year or three it should be even better, but it is magnificent right now. Buy some and see for yourself why Olivier Humbrecht regularly wins a Winemaker of the Year award in the International Wine Challenge.

My fourth tannin-free bottle, also made by Grant Burge, is Late Harvest Muscat 1997, Barossa (Fuller's, pounds 4.99), and it is one of the purest expressions of the Muscat grape one could imagine, picked just short of terminally sweet ripeness (to keep some acidity in there) and vinified to preserve the freshness of the fruit. With just 11 per cent alcohol, it's got quite a lot of sweetness, but that sweetness does not cloy or pale. An amazing wine at the price, and not a single molecule of tannin anywhere in sight.