Why do people enjoy bitter flavours in their wine?

bitter red wine

Award winning wine columnist Andrew Jefford discussed the reasons wine drinkers grow to the love the grape, and it’s all down to acidity.

New drinkers tend to experience their first glass of red wine as sour and bitter. As many people graduate to wine from fruit juices and soft drinks, they are used to acidity on the palate. The difference with red wine is that the sourness and bitterness have no balancing sweetness. That’s why sweeter wines tend to be a kind of access route into reds.

Super tasters

In evolutionary terms, bitter flavours acted as a warning signal that food may be toxic, and in 1991 a sensitivity to the bitter anti-thyroid drug propylthiouracil was identified as a key tester for whether someone is a taste ‘superstar’. Since then it has become clear that our sense of taste is more complex and being a ‘supertaster’ may not actually aid wine tasting, as it can simply rule out vast swathes of wines due to pickiness.

However, despite aversions to bitterness in childhood, many people overcome this and end up loving things like coffee, beer and cocktails. And sometimes bitter flavours show that something is ‘good’ for us. For example, tonic water contains quinine, which protects against malaria. Similarly, tannins in tea and wine (from fruit skins and stems) can be anti-carcinogenic and antioxidants, as well as being shown to reduce blood pressure.

Tannic wines

Tannins also have preservative properties, which is probably why they ended up in grape skins. It could be construed that wine drinkers come to love the bitter flavours of wine as they are associated subconsciously at least, with health-giving properties.

Some wines heavy on tannic flavours include Napa Cabernet, Bekaa Valley reds, Barolo, Barbaresco, Bordeaux and Madiran. There are also less tannic red wines that include bitter notes in their flavour profiles. These include red wines from the Languedoc and Veneto areas, which come with a very distinctive and nuanced bitter flavour.

Rich flavours

It seems that as long as the bitter flavours in wines are balanced or otherwise complemented by other flavours then they are enjoyable. In a similar way to acidity in wines, if the bitterness is stark and unbalanced then it tends to be unpleasant, but well balanced makes for a rich, rounded flavour profile.