Growing into adulthood means accepting life’s bitter aspects. This is true for everything from love to the weather. But in the world of food and drink, it’s a literal transition. As human beings grow older, their palates change. They leave behind the sweet tastes of youth and learn to appreciate the subtler pleasures of bitterness.
What do kids like to eat? Chocolate pudding, Pixie Stix, Laffy Taffy and Cap’n Crunch. I used to eat full tablespoons of cake frosting while my mother looked on in horror.
But now? Hot black espresso, please. Campari cocktails and tonic water. Black Moroccan olives and lemon zest. Gravlax, broccoli rabe and crunchy green salads full of rocket and escarole. We revel in the hop tang of lager beers, the bittersweet bite of dark Swiss chocolate. And when we come back to those luridly sweet candies of our youth, we smile at their familiarity, but most of us just can’t choke them down the way we used to.
As one’s adult tastes evolve toward bitterness, what is the adult beverage to accompany such fare? One answer, bred from my successful experimentation, is to match bitter foods with bitter wines. I do not mean wine with an unpleasant bite that spoils things. Bad wine is bad wine, no matter what you’re eating. But certain wines have what the critics call a “pleasing astringency.” It is a euphemistic phrase, like “military consultants” and “pre-owned automobiles.” What it means in relation to wine is a certain textural snap in the finish, often from a combination of acidity and grape-skin tannin, that enlivens the palate and refreshes the taster after each sip. Think of apples with their skins on, or candied orange peels. It’s bitterness, yes-tamed in part by other aspects of a wine. An occasional quality in reds, it occurs more frequently in whites.
If you want to know what I’m talking about, try a bottle of Verdicchio. The Verdicchio grape grows in the Marches region of eastern Italy, primarily in the towns of Castelli di Jesi on the Adriatic coast and Matelica further in from shore. With its dry taste and citrusy acids, it constitutes the local seafood white, one of dozens of such wines indigenous to Italy. Indeed, it would normally rate just a passing mention in most wine scribblings-but for one thing. A crazy, nose-tingling aroma of licorice invades the wine; a high-toned, almost medicinal quality. In strong, old versions from Matelica, it tastes like a shot of absinthe; in light versions (those kitschy, fish-shaped bottles on package-store shelves), it’s more delicately vegetal, like anise or fresh fennel. Call it what you will, but it is there, belligerent and ineffable, and as it runs the gauntlet of the wine’s natural acidity at the finish, it turns persistently bitter. What tames such a wine?
Saltwater fish is the classic match with it; but the pairings get really interesting with bitter greens like amaranth, mustard, and broccoli rabe or (not surprisingly) dishes involving anise and fennel. The edge of the wine collides with the bite of the vegetables in such a way that both are enhanced, leaving the taster a little thirstier and a little hungrier than before. Seafood risotto with braised radicchio is marvelous with it. Throw in some sweet sausage for contrast, and you’ve achieved a sensational, regional food-wine experience. Organic labels of Verdicchio include Villa Bucci, Colle Stefano, and Cantine Bellisario. Sartarelli, grown sustainably, is more readily available.
Other white wines deliver a modest measure of the so-called “pleasing astringency” that works so well with bitter or aggressively herbal foods. Italian examples include Vermentino, Vernaccia and the Sauvignon Blancs of the northern regions. Muscadet from the Loire has it, and many lighter-styled Gruner Veltliners from Austria. Shellfish with a drop of Pernod or white fin-fish with lots of fresh parsley work wonderfully with these. If you can find a bone-dry Elbling from Germany or a Gros Plant from the Nantais, you are in for some masochistic enjoyment.
In reds, tannin provides the sensation of bitterness, particularly tannin coupled with an acidic structure to propel it. Reds that nip at you nicely are led by Cabernet Franc, the herbaceous red wine of Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur, again in the Loire. Organic versions seem to outnumber conventional ones in the American market these days-you can practically close your eyes and point. There’s also a cluster of light red wines valued for their astringency in northern Italy, including Bardolino, Refosco, dry Marzemino and sparkling Lambrusco, which work perfectly with the salty, savory salumi and olives of the sub-Alpine provinces. Or if you want a BIG red with bite, look for Sagrantino, officially the most naturally tannic red wine in the world. Paolo Bea’s is legendary, but Di Filippo is a fine organic contender for half the price. Grilled lamb with a black olive tapenade would be miraculous with this vinous monster from Umbria. Also try the ancient ink-dark wine of Madiran, made from Tannat and Cabernet, a combination of ferrous minerality and jet black fruit encased in tannins. Sound scary? Pour it with char-broiled meat and a side of Brussels sprouts (notoriously bitter) and become a convert.
A great fortified wine with bitterness is fino sherry from Spain. Endlessly versatile, fantastically refreshing, and priced far below what it should be, it masters any and all bitter foods you throw at it, including the nuts and olives with which it is traditionally served. My search for organic sherry didn’t yield much, but Bodegas Robles in nearby Montilla-Moriles makes a fine organic fino from Pedro Ximenez grapes.
The world’s most famous and expensive astringent wine? Champagne of course. Its low sugar and high acidity scratches at your palate, while those prickly little bubbles snap at you like a jealous lover. Low dosage bottlings-those with less sugar added than conventional, mass-market brands-are especially useful for the two briniest foods associated with them: caviar and oysters. Also a hit are raw vegetables with a bitter edge like radishes and celery. A dash of salt marries them to the wine seamlessly. My father enjoys Champagne at the holidays with a crudité of raw fennel stalks spread with dollops of chopped liver. It’s a strange combination of bitterness and fat-but it works.