[Article #3] A taste for bitterness

Par Gabrielle Vizzavona

Long considered a fault, bitter flavours are increasingly appreciated by wine enthusiasts


A misunderstood and much-maligned flavour, the slightest allusion to bitterness is rarely flattering and for a long time the descriptor seemed doomed to be used as a pejorative wine term. Of the four flavours, it is undoubtedly the most complex and the one to which our reactions are the most diverse. Allegedly, our aversion to bitterness is genetically programmed to ensure the survival of the human race. This is the argument put forward by Professor Claude Fischler and charted by Emmanual Giraud in his essay ‘L’Amer’ (Bitterness) published by Argol. In his essay, Giraud recounts his search for bitterness during his one-year stay at the Villa Medici in Rome: “Whereas sweetness flags up a rapidly available source of calories, a bitter flavour acts as a warning against the risk of poisoning by molecules belonging to the alkaloid group”, explains the scientist. Apparently, more than thirty genes are responsible for detecting bitterness, which would explain the range of tolerance from one individual to another, depending on their genome. Some people can hardly sense it, whilst others cannot bear it – in the most extreme cases, it can even make them faint. This is illustrated by the famous tests conducted during organoleptic tasting lectures which aim to demonstrate sensorial inequalities. A small strip soaked in the bitterness molecule propylthiouracil (PTU) is placed on the tongue. Surprisingly, reactions vary considerably depending on the person and can range from absolutely neutral to revulsion. Although perception thresholds vary from 1 to 1,000, they seemingly only involve the strength of sense and not its quality. So understanding the flavour primarily implies educating taste buds. The delicate bitterness lauded by adverts for vintage liqueurs were superseded by ads vaunting the delicious flavours of sweetness. But sweetness is now beginning to play second fiddle to bitterness again. Bitter notes were long perceived as a fault – now they are starting to become more sought-after. “The change in tastes is still something new. French chefs are beginning to talk about bitterness, whereas in Italy it has been customary for over a century. We are in the process of changing our flavour culture. By trying to produce this style of wine in the 2000s, I was going against the grain compared with the conventional wisdom of the time. But sommeliers subscribed to my strategy”, comments Thierry Germain, a winegrower in Saumur-Champigny. The Italian market, with its abundance of bitter liqueurs that have become increasingly popular over the past few years, has probably been partly instrumental in the change. In fact, Italy has made bitter flavours its signature style. They are commonly found in the jewels of the Italian gourmet food crown: coffee, liqueurs, artichokes, rocket, Campari, herbs, fiery olive oils, bergamot, chicory and radishes – all of which leave a delicious, and addictive, bitter taste in your mouth. In fact, the Italians have even turned the word into a verb – “amaregiare” – which in English could be translated as “to make bitter”. So has the palate of tasters gradually been “made bitter” too? As Emmanual Giraud points out – there isn’t one bitterness, but several. “We would need many descriptors to talk about the myriad, complex types of bitterness”. The ones found in wine are equally numerous and complex: green or ripe; mouth-coating or astringent; long or short-lived. The binary nature of bitterness – switching from pleasure to revulsion – makes it a flavour designed for educated palates. As we broaden the spectrum of flavours we are exposed to, these slightly inaccessible, charismatic flavours steal a march over the comparatively simpler, more vapid flavours. Whilst bitterness is difficult for the inexperienced or ultra-sensitive palate to appreciate, when harnessed it provides a huge source of complexity in a wine. “The concept of fine wine is never linked to sweetness, but to the proper ripeness of the fruit which you achieve after years of observation of plant life and soil tillage. That’s when that beautiful bitterness becomes a vehicle for flavour”, confirms Thierry Germain, describing that fragile equilibrium when phenolic ripeness and extraction hit the right spot, without veering to dryness. Bitterness can then imbue the wine with a measure of austerity, imparting elegance and attitude. It highlights varietal expression through sense of place and brings out those highly sought-after floral notes. It adds drive to the finish with an after-taste that floods the palate. It provides a break in the symmetry that can prove slightly tiresome. 

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