I haven’t checked the numbers, but I assume that most winemakers don’t have a background designing cyclotrons, a type of particle accelerator. George Hendry does, and at his Napa winery, Hendry Winery, he brings his scientific process and precision to his product. After giving my family and I a tour of his farm a couple of weeks ago, and patiently answering many questions, Hendry led us inside for an experiment.
Pouring us a barrel-fermented Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir, he had us take a small sip of both. The Chardonnay is flavorful, with just a hint of bitter, which, in this case, come from substances in the wood known as tannins.
“you can really feel it in the front of your mouth, says Hendry, before also pointing out the hint of feeling in the back of the throat. “That’s the tannins.”
Next, Hendry has us taste the Pinot. It’s more bitter, with more tannins than the Chardonnay, but still fruity. He has us take another sip. It’s less fruity, more sour. He has us taste it again. It’s just sour — any hint of the Pinot’s fruit is gone.
That, Hendry explains, is because tannins bind with proteins, including proteins on your tongue, like taste receptors. Once bound with, your taste is out of commission until your body can get rid of the tannins on its own (which takes about three minutes). Suddenly that fruity taste is gone, bound up from the wine, and all that is left is sour. Luckily, there is a simple solution, and it’s why you drink wine with dinner: eat some protein. Hendry handed us a cracker and a cup of olive oil to dunk it into, and had us take another sip. Fruit again.
This is the same technique Hendry uses when he is taste-testing his own wine. In order to most accurately taste each of his wines, especially the more tannin-heavy ones, he keeps a cup of olive oil and a sleeve of crackers close by.
It is not just that dinner can bring back the flavor of wine, it can go the other way too. Say, for instance, you take your first bite of steak. It’s delicious, soft and savory, and as you enjoy it, it is leaving a coat of fat on your tongue. Your next bite is good, but through the fat you can’t taste it quite as much. The third bite you can taste even less.
With a sip of the right wine, tannins quickly bind with fatty coating on your tongue and strip it away. Wine can be a literal palette cleanser.
Hendry explained that the fattier your meal is the more tannins you want in your wine. Pouring us a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, he said that this one was “not enough for a pot roast, but just
enough for a ribeye.”
In general, Pinot Noir has more tannins than Chardonnay, Primotivo has more than Pinot, Zinfandel has more than a Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon has more still, and a Petit Sirah might have enough to accompany a pot roast.
Of course not everyone tastes wine the same of — some people enjoy tannins, some people don’t.
When we drank the Pinot Noir, some people around the table tasted fruit, some while others tasted spice. If we had had more tannin sensitive people in our group, they might have just tasted bitter. “We all live in our own little sensory universe,” said Hendry.
I have never been a big wine drinker. I will usually pick an IPA over a Zinfandel, but watching Hendry I finally felt like I understood wine.
“Wine is not a cocktail,” said Hendry, It’s a tool, and when used correctly it can help you appreciate both it and your food to the fullest. Or, as Hendry put it, “I’d much rather taste than just eat.”