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Bitter the Devil You Know

By Debra Meiburg MW

There is a reason why we describe life’s painful disappointments as bitter pills. If you have fumbled your way to the medicine cabinet in a pre-hangover state, odds are you know about the bitterness of pills: an aspirin stubbornly lodged in the back of your dry mouth is the textbook example of bitterness.

With wine, some cultures show a distinct preference for bitterness, while others shy away. Italian wines are often distinguishable by their hallmark bitterness on the finish. The French are far more likely to accept bitterness in their wines than the British, who have made a science of aging their wines in the hope of softening bitterness and astringency. Australian and American winemakers are even more likely to shun bitterness.

Bitterness features in many foods, such as grapefruit, walnuts and field greens, like romaine, arugula or radicchio. Broccoli, cucumber and celery can also be bitingly bitter – not to mention Chinese bitter melon. Tonic water is a water-based drink made bitter by adding quinine. Campari and Angostura are bitter flavorings used in aperitifs. Many snacks in our markets, such as preserved plums or dried orange peels have been powdered with alum, a preservative that provides bitter piquancy to balance the fruit’s natural sweetness.

Yale researchers assert that 35% of women and 15% percent of men are super-sensitive to bitterness. That women are hypersensitive to bitterness comes as no surprise to anyone who has suffered an estranged girlfriend. These super-sensitive-to bitterness types have been dubbed “super-tasters.” If the thought of bitter chocolate or a double-espresso makes you cringe, you are probably sensitive to bitterness. Many of us shrink from bitter foods as historically bitterness was a biological alert system provided by nature: “Stay away. This will make you gag repeatedly and may kill you.”

To assess taste sensitivity, scientists swab tongue surfaces with 6-propylthiouracil, a thyroid medication known as PROP. As PROP is available only by prescription, try this alternative home test using blue food coloring, a magnifying glass and a piece of paper with a 7mm hole punched into it. Swab the blue food coloring onto your tongue. The tongue will take up the color, but the papillae, which are tiny taste buds, will remain pink. Put the piece of paper onto your tongue and count the pink dots within the hole. Fewer than 15 papillae indicates you are a poor taster. Between 15-35, and you score as average. Above 35 pink dots, you are a super-taster.

The terms bitterness and astringency are often incorrectly used interchangeably by wine buffs. Bitterness is a taste, but astringency is the sensation of dryness. Similarly, chili heat is not a taste, but a burning sensation. To learn how to distinguish bitterness and astringency, compare your response to bitter walnut skins versus the astringent bite of an uncooked artichoke.

The impact of bitterness can be diminished by saltiness, which is why some people sprinkle salt on their grapefruit or a tart slice of apple. While few wines are deliberately bitter, some grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon have slightly higher bitterness than other varieties. Serve these wines with salty or fatty dishes to negate the assault on your palate. Unfortunately, much as the English hope for the opposite effect, bitterness in wine rarely dissipates and may become more prominent with time as a wine’s fruitiness receded. And that’s the bitter truth.

Comments 3 Comments for “Bitter the Devil You Know”
  1. gdfo on 10.24.12 at 01:57

    I think that the threshold of bitterness is also a cultural phenomenon. Some cultures live with the tolerances that you cite. To this day, I have heard American wine drinkers state they prefer dry wines but will and do pick wines of obvious fruit and sweetness over wines with mineral and or bitterness in the structure.

    All in all, it is ok. It is hard for people to think and drink outside their preferrences. Hopefully the wine writers and wine critics know how their own tolerances are expressed in their work.

  2. Debra Meiburg MW on 10.27.12 at 15:45

    Agreed. In my “Let Me Introduce You to your Tongue” program (a popular program for corporate events) we always discuss this issue and do our best to figure out who within the group is more bitter-sensitive (including me!) and/or less sensitive.

  3. Lee Schneider on 10.31.12 at 08:58

    It’s strange to think that ‘sweetness’ is somehow considered unsophisticated and ‘bitterness’ sophisticated. Sweetish Muscats and ports taste complex to me, and a big old oaky zin doesn’t have much sophistication at all to my palate. And I agree with you on American wines, particularly when it comes to the ‘jammy’ approach of some Oregon wines.

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