Some would-be wine drinkers get turned off by wine’s perceived bitterness, but vino comes in a range of styles.
Bitterness in wine is from alcohol. High alcohol wines (13%+) can taste bitter Lower alcohol wines (Moscato, Lambrusco) are less bitter. Astringency, a tactile sensation, dries your mouth. High-tannin red wines feel more astringent. Light white wines are always less bitter and astringent than reds.
Understanding how a wine is made can help you pick out bottles that may be less bitter and more enjoyable depending on your personal preferences.
Here’s how bitterness and astringency work in wines and how you can choose different wines depending on your taste preferences.
- What Is Bitterness?
- What Is Astringency?
- What Makes Wine Bitter and Astringent?
- How to Tell If Wine Is Bitter or Astringent?
- White Wines vs. Red Wines: Bitterness and Astringency
- What Is A Good Wine That Isn’t Bitter? 4 Great Options
- Final Thoughts – Bitterness and Astringency in Wine
- Thirsty for More?
What Is Bitterness?
Bitterness is part of our sense of taste, just like sweetness, saltiness, or sourness. You detect bitter foods on your tongue, or palate, via taste buds.
Humans evolved the ability to detect bitterness because many toxic compounds have bitter elements.
Your sensitivity to bitterness depends on genetics. Some people have a heightened sensitivity to bitterness, while others enjoy bitter foods.
What Is Astringency?
Unlike bitterness, astringency is a tactile sensation. Astringency produces a drying sensation on your tongue. It’s a chemosensory reaction that travels through the nerves in your mouth sending a signal to your brain that the food you’re eating is astringent.
What Makes Wine Bitter and Astringent?
Several components can add bitterness and astringency to wine.
- Alcohol, ethanol more specifically, is bitter and also contributes to the sensation of astringency. You’re likely to perceive greater bitterness and astringency in higher alcohol wines (13%+).
- Underripe tannins can cause bitterness and astringency in wine, too. Tannins come from grape skins, grape seeds, and grape stems. When the grapes get pressed, the winemaker decides how hard to press the grapes, dividing each press cycle into different press fractions. The harder that the grapes are pressed, the more bitter and astringent compounds get extracted. While the winemaker decides what percentage of press wine to add to the final blend, as a general rule the more press wine, the more likely that the final wine will have perceptible bitterness and astringency. This decision may be stylistic. It could also be based on economics. Press wine increases the total volume of wine available to bottle and sell, increasing profits.
- Whole bunch fermentation can add bitterness and astringency. Winemakers sometimes choose to use whole bunches of grapes during fermentation. Instead of crushing and desteming the grapes, and separating the stems from the grape juice, the winemaker just tosses in the grape bunches and starts fermentation. This process, called carbonic or semi-carbonic maceration, helps develop bubblegum, watermelon, banana, and cinnamon characteristics in red wines. But adding whole grape bunches can leach under-ripe tannins from green stems if they stay in contact with the wine, increasing astringency.
- Problems in the Vineyard: Disease pressure, sunburn, and heat stress, all of these can exacerbate bitter and astringent flavors in the final wine.
Helpful Tip: If you’re stuck with a red wine that’s too bitter for you to enjoy, you can totally sweeten it up – head over to this post to learn exactly how you can make wine taste less bitter.
How to Tell If Wine Is Bitter or Astringent?
Experiment time! One of the things I love about wine is that you can learn more about how your taste buds work without ever taking a sip.
Before trying to tease out bitterness and astringency in your wine, try to get a sense of each by doing side-by-side comparisons with foods that are either bitter or astringent.
Try tasting a few of the foods below side-by-side. Concentrate on your mouth’s sensory reactions.
- Raw brussels sprouts
- Cocoa powder (85%+ chocolate)
- Dandelion flower
- Tonic water
- Concentrated black tea
- Pomegranate seeds
- Raw cranberry
- Unripe persimmon
- Green banana
- Grapefruit pith
- Apple Seeds
Once you have a better sense of bitterness and astringency, it’s time to taste your wine.
Ask yourself these two questions:
- Are you sensing the bitterness of taste?
- Or are you reacting to the chemosensory irritation of astringency?
White Wines vs. Red Wines: Bitterness and Astringency
When it comes to bitterness and astringency, white wines and red wines display notable differences.
White wines generally have lower levels of bitterness and astringency compared to their red counterparts.
With their lighter profiles and minimal contact with grape skins and seeds during production, white wines offer a smoother and less astringent experience.
On the other hand, red wines, especially those high in tannins, can deliver a more pronounced astringent sensation and potentially carry a touch of bitterness.
What Is A Good Wine That Isn’t Bitter? 4 Great Options
Now that you know that bitterness and astringency come from the grape skins, seeds, stems, and alcohol, it’s time to find a wine that’s better suited to your taste preferences.
Recommendation #1: Try lower alcohol wines.
Because alcohol increases bitterness and astringency, stick with wines that are lower in alcohol.
Helpful Tip: Look for wines wines under 11% ABV, these are considered low-alcohol.
Here are four palate-friendly, minimally bitter wines worth exploring:
- Moscato: Made from the ancient Muscat grape, these wines are heavily aromatic and typically made in a light style.
- Pinot Grigio: A light, fruity, high-acid wine that rarely has extended contact with grape skins or grape seeds.
- Torrontes: A rooty-tooty-fresh-and-fruity white from Argentina.
- Orvieto: From the heartland of Umbria, Italy, Orvieto offers a fun alternative to Sauvignon Blanc. It comes in a range of styles, from sweet to dry, and uses a blend of grapes to make aromatic wines with peach, apple, and floral notes.
Why are all of these recommended wines white?
Recommendation #2: Stick to White Wines
You want to avoid wines with heavy extraction. Red wines go through something called ‘extraction’ during the winemaking process.
Jargon Alert: Extraction refers to pulling out compounds from the grapes during the winemaking process to impart tannin, color, and flavor compounds.
You now know that tannins come from stems, seeds, and skins. All three play a part in red wine production, but not so much in white winemaking.
Tasting Tip: Learn how to taste red wine tannins with this quick tip post on tasting wine tannins here.
Extraction helps create body, heft, and flavor intensity in the wines, but can also impart bitter and astringent qualities.
Recommendation #2: Avoid High Tannin Red Wines
Certain wine grapes are naturally high in tannin thanks to bigger seeds, thicker skins, or traditional winemaking practices that tend to maximize extraction.
Here are wines you’ll want to avoid if you dislike bitter and astringent wines:
Helpful Tip: Check out this full list of strong red wines if you’re curious.
Final Thoughts – Bitterness and Astringency in Wine
Alcohol and tannins in wine can increase bitterness and astringency. Astringency is a physical sense; bitterness is a flavor.
If you want to avoid bitterness and astringency in wine, a very safe bet will be your light, low alcohol white wines.
Understanding how grapes and winemaking practices influence a wine’s style allows you to select wines that align with your preferences around bitterness and astringency.
Thirsty for More?
Check out this post on how you can make your red wines less bitter.
Here’s a great post that goes into good sweet wine for beginners – table wines to dessert wines and so much more.
Check out this post that dives into how to figure out if the bottle you’re holding is a sweet wine or not. (You have to use those label clues)