When you need a hit of acid

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Time to bookmark your page in the Twilight saga. We’re back for the second installment of my wine basics tutorial that will keep your vinous vocabulary savvy and your palate sharp during the summer break. So, now that we’ve rewritten our definitions of sweet, dry, and fruity after last week’s lesson, we are ready to tackle another wine component that leads to its overall balance: acidity.

In most cases, acid isn’t a good thing. Acid reflux, acid rain, and acid-washed jeans are all the pits, but in wine and food, we want it. Acidity is the thing that keeps us coming back for more. It’s what makes lemonade so refreshing, tomatoes so delicious, and Sour Patch Kids so addictive (even after you’ve burned sores in your mouth). Acidity also contributes to the aging capability of a wine, preserving both color and flavor. Acid receptors are located on the outer sides of our tongues and, when heavily stimulated, cause our cheeks to pucker, our eyes to twitch, and our mouths to water.

The easiest way to understand acidity in wine is to start from the very beginning of a grape’s life. Just like any unripe fruit, a wine grape starts its life as a bud full of acid compounds. As it sits in the sun, its acids convert to sugars, ripening into an edible fruit. The more sunshine the grape sees in its life on the vine, the sweeter it will be. Soil composition, grape varietal, and microclimate breezes also play an important part in the retention of acidity. But generally, grapes grown in cooler climates (Austria, Northern France, New Zealand, etc.) retain more acidity than the sun-soaked grapes grown in warmer climates (Australia, Southern Italy, Napa Valley, etc.). 

In very warm regions where overripe grapes are a problem, wine can be chemically acidified with a dose of tartaric acid. A common prescription for an overly acidic wine is malolactic fermentation (MLF), when a second fermentation is incited to convert the green-apple tasting malic acid into the buttery-tasting lactic acid. MLF is often used in reds to “smooth out” any sharp edges, but is also a favorite treatment for New World Chardonnay aiming to taste of buttered popcorn.

A dry wine without acidity is dull and lifeless. Dubbed “flabby” in wine speak, it clumsily flops around in your mouth until you manage to choke it down. A sweet wine without acidity would be as sickeningly sweet as a shot of maple syrup. 

When pairing wine with food, acidity serves as a necessary palate cleanser for the fats and proteins in food that coat your tongue. The New World tendency to drink wine on its own has conditioned our palates to prefer wines with less acidity, but more New World producers are taking cues from the Old World and making wines with crisp levels of acidity to complement our meals.

Each person’s palate detects a wine’s components in varying levels of intensity, so if a wine is too acidic for you at first sip, try it with food and notice how the acidity mellows and the flavors of the food intensify. For acid fiends, try Chenin Blanc, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc in white, and Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and Barbera in red. Not down with the pucker? Go for Chardonnay, Marsanne, and Viognier in white, and Malbec, Merlot, and Tempranillo in red.

Acidity, along with the other components of wine, should meld seamlessly like instruments in an orchestra. At moments, one may play a solo, but in the end, they should all be in perfect harmony. 

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