Hoosier Wineaux: The bitter truth about wine and why we prefer certain flavors

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By: Frank Piaskowy

Flavor 574 photo/Frank Piaskowy

Last weekend I had the opportunity to pour wine at the BEAC Home and Outdoor Expo hosted in the event center at the RV/MH Hall of Fame. A question came up during the event got me thinking about the sense of taste.

When offering samples of different wines, I initially attempted to determine whether an individual preferred dry or sweet. Novice wine drinkers asked me what I meant by a dry wine. My short answer was, “a more pronounced astringency or puckering quality.”

Upon further reflection, I recognize there is much more intricacy to dry when it comes to wine. You may be surprised to know that the vast majority of commercial wines are made dry, having a less than 1 percent [10 grams/liter] residual sugar content. Sweet wines are defined by having 4.5 percent [45 grams/liter] or greater residual sugar. Anything in-between is considered off-dry.

A wine becomes dry as the natural sugars found in grape juice are fermented to alcohol. It may seem counter intuitive, but some wines that fall below the 1 percent residual sugar level can still taste sweet. For some people, the threshold of sweetness perception is as low as 0.2 percent residual sugar. Additionally, fruitiness contributes to experiencing sweetness.

If not simply a matter of sugar content, what else contributes to dryness? It seems to me that bitterness is the major factor. Not surprisingly, of the five tastes from the tongue (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami), humans are most sensitive to bitterness.

Bitterness in wine results from tannins, which come from grape seeds, skins and stems along with barrel aging. Wine will taste drier because bitterness reduces the perception of sweetness. To a lesser extent, acidity (sourness) also reduces perceived sweetness.

In contrast, alcohol can increase the sweetness taste. You may now have a better sense of the balancing act winemaking represents.

So if bitterness is the key to perceived dryness, what makes some of us more or less tolerant of dry wines? It turns out to be a matter of genetics and anatomy.

The world-wide population can be divided into 25 percent non-tasters, 50 percent regular tasters and 25 percent supertasters. The latter have inherited certain genes, along with a greater density of taste buds containing fungiform papillae on their tongue. It is theorized that supertasting evolved as a protective mechanism against poisonous plants.

Linda Bartoshuk, PhD, a pioneer in the study of supertasting, has noted that “supertasters live in a neon food world compared to the pastel food world [everyone else lives in].” Supertasters are found in greater numbers among chefs, as well as more common in women, Asians and African Americans.

Although palates vary, you may be a supertaster if you:

  • Are turned off by grapefruit or other bitter foods
  • Add sweeter and mild to black coffee
  • Avoid dark green vegetables
  • Are not a fan of heavy salad dressings or other fatty, creamy foods
  • Find ale beers and hard liquors to be too bitter
  • Prefer salty foods, skim milk and syrup based cocktails

Supertasters are exquisitely sensitive to bitterness and are generally put off by intensely sweet or fatty foods. Therefore, they may be best able to determine whether a wine is balanced.

Whether you are a dry or sweet wine drinker, it probably is more a matter of inheritance rather than a purely objective choice. After all, the “best” wine is one you enjoy drinking and can afford.

VIGNETTES:

  • While uncertainty exists as to the specific extent smell contributes to taste, Martin Yeomans, professor of experimental psychology at University of Sussex, has written, “It is generally recognized that olfactory stimuli contribute a significant proportion of the experience of flavors for the majority of foods.”  Herein lies the source of fruit, floral, herbal, spice and earth aromas and flavors we perceive in wine.
  • What wine might you offer to a beer drinker?
    • If they prefer wheat beers, try a barrel aged California Chardonnay. Both have a creamy texture and fruit flavors with malty aromas.
    • Pilsner drinkers might enjoy a clean and crisp French Sauvignon Blanc or New York dry Riesling.
    • Pale ales exhibit a profile that parallels the light body but austere fruit of an Oregon Pinot Noir.
    • If the rich mouth-feel and dense flavors of porter/stout beers are your choice, consider a Chilean Merlot/Carmenere or an Australian Shiraz.
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