Latin for “with a grain of salt”. . . Listening to the news this week, a story out of London caught my attention. A book called “Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea” was published by The Royal Society of Chemistry and authored by the American chemist Michelle Franci. She brewed up a brouhaha because of one sentence in which she posits that adding salt to tea will “block the bitter receptors in our mouths” and make the perfect cup of tea. She notes that what is called for is just a wee pinch, not enough to taste. An American telling the British what to do with their tea did boil over into a situation where the author found herself in hot water with the British media, forcing the American Embassy to state in response. As I heard this, my sommelier's brain thought – well, she is right – salt does temper the impression of bitterness and can make what is being consumed taste smoother. How does salt impact our impression of bitterness in wine?
A cooking and baking tip is that salt makes other flavors pop. A sweet item tastes flat if you forget to add that bit of salt; savory foods come to life as salt allows all the seasonings to shine. Salt is an inherent component in wine; some varieties, such as Albariño, can express pronounced salinity on the palate due to the vineyard’s proximity to bodies of salt water such as oceans. The wind carries the sea salt to the grapes and leaves its impression on the wine. In the case of Albariño, it always leaves for me the delightful blind-tasting marker of a watered-down salt-rimmed margarita as the lime notes in the wine mingle with the sea salt minerality.
So, what exactly happens when salt hits our palates? Some scientists study salt, which proves to be a shockingly challenging thing to study. Creating an independent study without salt is hard for humans as salt is in our bodies and palates. They have come to suspect that there are one, maybe two, salt channels that send information from our palate to the brain to process the sensation of salt. It dampens the impact of bitterness by 70%; our taste buds help with the first 20%, and the chemicals sent to the brain help with the last 50%.
Where exactly is this bitterness coming from in wine? Bitterness can come from the grape skins, seeds, and oak aging. Red wine leans towards utilizing all three, and white wine leans towards the grape skins, and seeds – but extended aging in oak can make even white wine tannic. As sommeliers, we tend to use the term phenolic bitterness to discuss bitterness in whites and tannins to discuss this in reds. Picture a young Barolo or Barbaresco, the tannins are coming from the grapes and the oak aging and will be drying on the palate. If one were to have food, such as salted and seasoned meat, the drying impact of the tannins and perceived bitterness is lightened - the wine appears smoother and the fruit more expressive. If we were to take a white wine that exhibits phenolic bitterness, such as Pinot Gris, Riesling, Albarino, Viognier, Gewurztraminer, or Gruner Veltliner - there can be an almond skin or citrus pith-like bitterness that is not drying like the tannic bitterness. Enjoying these wines with salted foods will decrease the impression of phenolic bitterness and the acidity of the wines, which will seem slightly decreased, and the wines will be smoother and, in some cases, sweeter on the palate. Cheese, seafood, and charcuterie would be excellent pairings to test this out.
If you look around at the salted caramel coffee drinks and salted dark chocolate cookies, you can see the idea of salt being used to tame bitterness very much in action – chocolate and coffee are both naturally bitter. I even saw an Instagram post suggesting adding a small pinch of salt to your espresso when brewing to tame bitterness. Food science is fascinating, but taste is personal. I love tannins – I drink my coffee black, like my dark chocolate unsalted, and can happily enjoy a tannic red wine without food – however, I can marvel at the impact of a bit of salt to mitigate that edge that took me so long to appreciate. Whilst the American scientist is correct that a small amount of salt in tea will diminish bitterness, she did cause a tempest in a teapot, suggesting their way of enjoying tea was not “perfect.” It’s a fun experiment to see how salt changes the way various wines taste on your palate, but at the end of the day . . . taste is personal, to each their own, and take all of this "with a grain of salt.”