All about acidity in wine

 

Acidity in wine by Wines With Attitude

What acidity in wine means

This Wines With Attitude guide covers everything you need to know about acidity in wine - how you taste acidity in wine, what causes it, which wines have high acidity and which are low in acidity, whether high or low acidity is better plus tips on matching high acid wines with food.

Wine writers use the word "acidity" frequently - I know that I write the term often in my Wines With Attitude tasting notes. Conscious that some consumers may be wary of the words "acidity" or "acidic", I try to vary the words I use to describe wines displaying acidity so you will see terms such as fresh, bright, zesty, zingy, refreshing, tangy and crisp though whether these really convey the true meaning could be debated.

It is simply difficult if not impossible to avoid using "acidity" because it is one of the essential components of a good wine as you can read in my blogpost on what makes a wine a good wine. So, if we can't avoid the term, let's find out more about it.


How to taste acidity in wine

Acidity in wine makes the mouth water Wines With Attitude
Acidity is not a taste as such (if your wine tastes of acid then you have a problem) but it can be detected by a tingling sensation on the sides of the tongue. When you taste a wine with high acidity such as a Sancerre, your mouth will water more than usual - just as it does when you bite into a sharp Granny Smith apple or drink unsweetened lemonade. It whets the appetite, making you want to take another bite or sip.

 

What acidity adds to wine


-          structure and longevity; a wine low in acidity is less likely to age well

-          stability by helping to keep bacteria and microorganisms at bay

-          colour; the more acid, generally the more stable, intense and more vibrant the colour

-          flavours; just as lemon can lift flavours in fish, acidity makes wine refreshing or crisp and leaves you wanting more

-          similarly, acidity can sharpen the aromas of a wine.

 

Hot tip: Tannins and acidity in particular can clash so avoid wines with high levels of both



What causes acidity in wine?

Grape varieties have different levels of acidity Wines With Attitude

Acidity is naturally present in grapes as it is in many foods and different varieties have different natural levels of acidity - Nebbiolo and Sauvignon Blanc for example are at the high end of the scale and Grenache and Viognier are at the low end.

The level of acidity is also affected in the vineyard by soils, location and the weather or vintage. The level of acidity in grapes first increases but then declines as the grapes ripen on the vine and the level of sugar rises. 

It is therefore key to the natural balance of a wine that grapes are picked at the right time i.e. when acidity and sugars are at "optimal" levels. Why? Well, if acidity falls too much, a wine could be considered flat or "flabby" with dull flavours and a higher susceptibility to spoilage and infection. Too much acid can make a wine seem too sharp or even bitter. It is all a balancing act for the winemakers as they also need to consider fruit flavours, sugar and therefore alcohol levels.

Winemakers might be tempted to adjust the acid (or the sugar- or both) and are generally permitted to do so within the boundaries of local regulations. Acidification, generally by the addition of tartaric acid, the most dominant acid in grapes, can be undertaken to increase acidity in warmer climate areas but can result in poorly made wine, especially where the adjustments are made post fermentation where the added acid has less chance to blend with the wine. A good taster can often recognise poor acidification as there is a very artificial acidic taste to the wine.

Adding acidity to wine is an option Wines with AttitudeAcidity is usually naturally lowered by malo-lactic fermentation or secondary fermentation, a process often encouraged by winemakers as it softens the acidity, converting malic acid into lactic acid and carbon dioxide. Deacidification may also be permitted by adding a carbonate - and though acid levels are reduced this can leave calcium tartrate crystals in the wine. These crystals are harmless but can deter some consumers from buying or drinking a wine.

One type of acidity in wine that is not desirable is volatile acidity, essentially acetic acid or vinegar. A small amount is produced during fermentation but it increases in a wine exposed to air and in large quantities spoils the wine.


Hot Tip: If you smell vinegar or nail polish remover in a wine, send it back



Which wines have high and which have low acidity?

I could get scientific and talk about measuring total acidity and pH levels in wine but I'll keep it short and just say that wines generally have a pH between 3.3 and 3.7 which sits in between black coffee with a pH of 5.0 and orange juice with a pH of 3.0. Few wines therefore are more acidic than a glass of your morning orange juice. But which wines should you opt for if you prefer to avoid wines with high acidity - here are a few tips:

Hot tip: White wines tend to have higher acidity than red wines

White wines tend to be more acidic than red winesAlmost all red wines undergo malo-lactic fermentation to convert harsh malic acid to softer lactic acid but not all white wines do; for example producers tend not to use MLF for Sauvignon Blanc but for producers of white Burgundy it is essential for the style. Lighter style red wines tend to have higher acidity than heavier, more full-bodied reds.

As mentioned above as grapes ripen the level of acidity in them increases but then declines as the level of sugar rises. In cool climate areas such as Burgundy vines can struggle to ripen fully so grapes generally have higher acidity and lower sugar. Conversely grapes grown in warmer climates tend to have low acid and high sugar.

Hot tip: Cool climate wines tend to have higher acidity than wines from warmer regions

Very dry wines tend to have good acidity but this does not mean that sweeter wines have low acidity - in fact they need acidity to balance the sweetness and prvent the sweet wine from being cloyingly sweet
There is no right or wrong - some people prefer more acidic wines, others prefer less acidic wines. There has however been a trend towards lower acidity wines or rather a rise in "big", ripe, fruit-filled, higher alcohol wines from warm climate regions. This in turn is partly linked to today's average consumer who doesn't want to wait years for a wine to mature but wants a wine ready for drinking now - or rather the supermarkets pushing the consumer down that path.
Perhaps tastes have therefore changed towards the more "commercial" lower acidity style. Reputable winemakers are shunning the high alcohol, lower acidity style and striving for more balanced wines which has to be a good thing. After all what is most important is that the acidity should be in balance with the sweetness, alcohol and any tannins.



Matching Acidic Wines With Food

Wines With Attitude Food and Wine Matching
In general wines that are higher in acidity complement food better than those with low acidity. Wines that display high acidity particularly complement acidic foods such as lemon or vinegar-based sauces as  crisp refreshing wines make the food seem softer and less tart. So for seafood with freshly-squeezed lemon or asparagus served with a vinaigrette sauce, try an Albariño or a Provence rosé.

Hot tip: If presented with a dish that is more acidic than the wine, add a dash of salt to reduce the acidity of the food



Generally acidic wines will not go well with creamy sauces so for meat served with a creamy sauce, a rich fish pie or Eggs Benedict, a ChardonnaySémillon or Chenin Blanc will be a better match.

 Hot tip: If you are served a creamy dish with an acidic wine such as Sauvignon Blanc, add some lemon juice or balsamic sauce to the food so that the food and wine are a better match

You can read more in my blogpost on food and wine matching

 


Cheers!

© Wines With Attitude Limited, www.wineswithattitude.co.uk

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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.

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