What Does ‘Bitter’ Mean in Wine?

An illustraition of a scowling wine bottle at the beach ready to enjoy the sun and scuba but grimacing at storm clouds on the horizon.
Illustration by Alyssa Nassner

One of the five basic taste profiles, bitter is defined as being sharp, unsweet and pungent. But what about bitterness in wine? What does it mean for wine to be bitter, and could it be a good thing?

First, some brief science. Studies show that humans have several bitter taste receptors in our tastebuds, distributed over our tongues and palate. In nature, bitterness has often signaled that something is wrong with what we’re consuming, and is commonly found in poisonous or nondigestible plants. As a result, we’re often less likely to enjoy intense bitter flavors.

Several other compounds in food are known to have a bitter flavor, like caffeine, and phenols and flavonoids found in things like coffee, arugula and cocoa powder.

We don’t all process bitterness the same way. It depends on our taste receptors and psychological associations with a particular food or drink. Bitter flavors are known to stimulate the appetite and prepare the digestive tract, which is why an aperitif is such a popular pre-dinner sip.

What Does 'Extraction' Mean in Wine?

Often, when people detect bitterness in wine, they are actually reacting to its tannic structure.

“When I think of tannic wines that are sort of bitter, I think of newer Bordeaux, for example,” says Sarah Goler, co-owner of natural wine bar Tannat in New York City. Tannins are polyphenols found in plants, like in the skin, stems and seeds of grapes. Red wine is more likely to have higher tannins and to taste bitter.

Goler says that tannins create a drying sensation in our mouths when they interact with taste receptors, which causes a bitter sensation. Wines that aren’t floral or fruity have more pronounced bitter notes, which can make them taste harsher. As a wine gets older, its tannins tend to break down due to oxidation or other chemical reactions. This can tone down its bitterness.

But, a high-tannin wine isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Goler has noticed that orange wine, which tends to taste bitter in comparison to other wines made from white grapes, has been popular at Tannat’s market.

“Those are wines that have skin contact, so they’ve been aged on the skins and seeds, which are the same parts of the grape that you get tannins from in red wine,” she says.

What are Tannins, Really?

The other reason that we might perceive wine to be bitter is unripe fruit, says Paula De Pano, beverage and service director of Fearrington House Inn in Pittsboro, North Carolina. This doesn’t mean that the grapes used for the wine were actually unripe. They were likely grown in cooler climates, “so they don’t achieve the same type of brightness as something coming from California or in hotter parts of Australia,” says De Pano.

Examples include Sancerre, Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige, and Austrian Grüner Veltliner. Similar to tannins, the perception of unripe fruit is a matter of taste.

“Unripe fruit normally has a good amount of acidity to it,” says De Pano.

While you may not enjoy a bitter-forward glass of wine, it’s a counterpoint to sweetness, says David Jelinek, winemaker for Faust Wines. Bitterness might enhance those floral or sweet notes, he says, but it should balance the wine, not stand out.

Sometimes, how you receive bitter notes depends on how you’ve developed your palate. If you typically drink smooth, low-tannin wines, one with higher tannins might be a shock, says Jelinek.

If you want to embrace bitterness, De Pano suggests starting with Grüner Veltliner. While slightly bitter, it’s a riper style of wine.

“Despite the fact that it has a bitter finish to it, that ripeness tapers off that initial perception that this wine is bitter,” says De Pano.

Published on June 29, 2021
Topics: Wine Basics