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Grape Expectations: Let's not be bitter about the tannins

One of the questions I'm most frequently asked by wine newbies is: "Why is this red wine so bitter?"

Nine times out of 10 it's unresolved tannins. Sometimes these will soften out, if we are drinking this particular wine too young. Sometimes they won't, because the wine, made in a poor year or by an inept winemaker, is under-fruited. In either case, we are prone to condemn the wine as 'bitter'.

Another reason we stigmatise wine as 'bitter' or 'tannic' is that we tend to drink wines too young. Most wine is consumed the night it's purchased and in most cases that's okay. Winemakers are savvy enough to suss that the consumer wants wines that are approachable and have tailored their wines to suit the market.

Tannins are found principally in the bark, leaves and immature fruit of a wide range of plants. Grapes, the only plant we need to consider, start out sour, bitter and astringent, through a combination of vicious acidity and aggressive tannins. By harvest time the grape has changed colour, the acidity has subsided and the bitter tannins have moved into the background where they continue to 'shape' the wine.

Some tannins also come from oak barrels, particularly new ones, used to age wine. Tannins contribute two characteristics to a red wine's character, astringency and bitterness. At the same time, the barrel tannins, like their plant counterparts, contribute to the wine's development and, by the time it's ready for drinking, will have played a significant role in forming the wine's character.

A year ago this month I was in Clare Valley, an Australian wine region that has wholeheartedly embraced the old world concept of 'terroir', by which I mean that combination of soil, aspect and microclimate that's the shaping influence on grapes grown there and on the wine made from them.

Clare is Australia's greatest Riesling producer. Its Riesling style is bone dry, with a kicking mineral nose after which the roundness and weight on the palate comes as a surprise. It's distinctive, refreshing and food friendly, with enjoyable hints of orange blossom, ripe pears, lemon, lime and passion fruit -- and the clean mineral finish considered a trademark of the area.

Two wines that impressed were the Mount Horrocks Watervale and the lean, elegant Grosset Polish Hill (left). Stephanie Toole and Jeffrey Grosset are one of wine's most significant 'items' and the amount of Riesling savvy they share is phenomenal.

Cellarmaster Wines in Stillorgan Industrial Park has a sale running until March 25, which provides a unique opportunity to acquire these great wines at bargain prices. The Mount Horrocks is at €20 and the Polish Hill at €24 -- a brilliant price for a classic of the genre normally listed in upmarket restaurants for around €80-€90.