The catering business can be tough. Some people want to eat like princes but pay like paupers.
As a result, it’s not unusual to see cheap red wines served with catered spreads. But those wines can be bitter. That’s why smart caterers make sure there is lots of cheese around to accompany those wines: Cheese helps tame or tone down the bitterness so even a cheap wine tastes acceptable.
When a wine leaves a bitter impression on the tongue, the cause almost always is tannin, a compound that comes from the seeds and stems of grapes. Tannin can either help make a wine great or cause an inferior wine to be less enjoyable.
A parallel can be drawn with tea since a tea leaf, like a grape’s skin and stem, contains tannin. When a tea bag is placed in hot water for the recommended period of time, a flavorful, nicely balanced beverage is the result. But if that bag is left in the water for too long, the tea can be so harsh it’s almost impossible to drink.
Can that cup of tea be “saved”? Yes. But not with the typical ingredients. Adding sugar would sweeten the brew, but only momentarily. Adding lemon juice, because of its acidity, would make the bitterness even more pronounced. Even adding water wouldn’t help; it would dilute the beverage, but the bitterness would still be there.
The only ingredient that could tame an overly bitter cup of tea is milk. The protein and fat in milk basically camouflage the bitter quality and make the tea drinkable.
Likewise, the protein and fat in cheese can tame the tannin of a harsh red wine. Caterers know this, so if the budget won’t allow for a top-quality wine, you can bet the cheese tray will be stacked high.
Interestingly, much like cholesterol, there can be good tannin or bad tannin in winegrapes. Good tannin is fully ripened and enhances a red wine’s color and structure. Bad tannin is unripe, and can make a wine almost one-dimensional and bitter. More and more, vintners pay as much attention to tannin ripeness as they do to sugar levels at harvest time.
Dauntingly, there is no scientific measurement available for tannin ripeness. Furthermore, a grape that’s ready to pick from a sugar perspective (for which a scientific measurement is available and utilized) may simultaneously possess unripe tannin. That leaves the vintners to depend on their experience and trust their tastebuds.