Cartizze is one of the great treasures of the wine world that is generally under appreciated. If you've never had it, I urge you to try a bottle with some whipped lardo on crusty bread and you'll see what I mean. Greg Spalding, Michael Markarian, Frederic Monnery, Jeremy Eubanks, Sean Dowling, Darla Hoffmann, Daniel Veit and Mark Guillaudeu showed us what's up, thank you.
This week: Phenolic bitterness
We use this term when blind tasting white wines, but what does it actually mean? What is causing that bitterness?
Phenolic bitterness is a sensation that can be attributed to phenolic compounds in a wine. Those compounds can be found in the grapes themselves. Grüner, Cab Franc, etc. have these compounds apparent and present with their finish, generally speaking, has varying bitterness depending on the growers preference.
Great to cleanse the palate when eating heavy dishes and some even confuse it for effervescence in Grüner sometimes.
Key to keep in mind that the phenolic ripeness of a grape generally is something that occurs in a varying timeline in different regions so some winegrowers & makers keep a close eye on this ripeness before harvest. Some wines have their fruit and tannin before their phenolic ripeness. For Pinot Noir it is generally accepted that it takes 90 days for this to occur so in exceptionally hot years it is a tightrope walk to balance the fruit, maintain the acidity, while still achieving phenolic ripeness.
Please correct me if I’m wrong!
Some liken it to the finish in Campari and Ketel One for reference points.
Not to be confused with tannins in red wines necessarily, however it may seem like similar flavor characteristics. The longer contact with solids and pre fermentation contact with the skins can cause a similar astrigent, drying, bitter taste or mouthfeel. It is not as common to do this in lighter fresher unoaked styles of wine but can add to the texture to specific wines like Pinot Grigio/Gris, Gewurtztraminer, Viognier, Albarino and Torrontes. It is said to possibly add to the aging potential of the wine as well. It can be harder to detect in wines with more oily (and sometimes sweeter) mouthfeels like Pinot Gris from Alsace, and Viognier and Gewurtztraminer primarily from France, but it is present in the composition of the wine.
Why not to be confused with tannin? There are definutely serveral polyphenols at play here, including tannins (some tannins from wood, occassionally, too), flavanoids, and flavanols. The latter is probably the most prolific for white wines, but we know that certain red pigmented white grapes (PG, Gewurtz, etc...) also have some anthocyanins.
The AWRI draws a very week correlatiln between total phenolics and actual phenolics bitterness and texture in wine. The main culprit seems to be acid/pH levels. Jamie Goode tells us that hydroxycinnamic acids are at play as the main phenolic in white wines, which lines up with what the Aussies are saying.
So, to answer the question on what it actually means when we're running down the grid and call phenolic bitterness. We are talking about a textural sensation cause most likely by a combination of acid and phenolic compounds in a grape. Alcohol can also have an effect on this sensation (as Hamilton alluded to by mentioning Ketel One).
Plenty of great things said already, I will interject that these flavors are also developed during maceration pelliculaire.
Phenolic bitterness is sometimes referred to as the tannins of white wine, although tannins are really (one of) the polyphenols of red wine. This may be an oversimplification but polyphenols are a whole group of compounds found in wine (and other fruits) which includes tannins. So tannins are a specific type of polyphenol. One important factor in the presence of either in wine is temperature or the presence of alcohol during fermentation. Most phenols are easily water soluble, so even brief skin contact in whites will extract some phenolics. Tannins more easily extract at higher temperatures in water but are highly soluble in alcohol, hence their presence in red wines and not whites.
Phenolic bitterness is an actual flavor of bitterness in a white wine that has seen some skin contact or hard pressing for a variety of reasons. I find that thinking about these reasons helps me better understand/ identify phenolic bitterness. Any white can have phenolics, but not all whites see hard pressing or skin contact and in those that don't it is being avoided.
For example, bitterness as a sensation causes us to salivate just like acid. This can make a grape with lower acid appear more refreshing. I think of an Aperol Spritz as a bitter, refreshing drink. That bitterness can balance sweetness in Alsatian wines with phenolics and some RS, especially from varietals that have diminished acidity.
Grape skins and stems both contain potassium and can raise the overall pH of a wine, so sometimes skin contact can help mitigate high acid in a cold year.
Phenolics interact with volatile compounds in wine and can enhance the aromatics of a wine. Phenolics are most often encountered in wines in semi to highly aromatic wines where there is something to gain from that skin contact. It can be hard to pick up when these wines have some RS that masks bitterness so it's helpful for me to remember when to look for it.
When I'm stuck on a white, phenolics or lack thereof can help me better focus my conclusion. Neutral white, in the Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Muscadet camp? One of these has phenolics, the others higher acid. Highly aromatic, stone fruits and spice, thinking Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer? Chenin and Riesling have higher acid, the other two phenolics.