Wine Acidity | What is acidity in wine?

Acidity in Wine

If you remember from back when we talked about why some wines age like George Clooney, and others not so much, acidity is one of the 5 components that make up a wine's structure. Think of structure as the foundation or backbone of the wine. Without solid foundation, nothing can be great. I like to think of the structure as the building itself, and then the aromas and flavors as the furniture and decor. 

The 5 components of structure are:

  1. Fruit: red fruitblack fruitexotic/tropical fruit, etc.  
  2. Sugar
  3. Acidity
  4. Alcohol
  5. Tannin

When these 5 things are balanced in perfect harmony, we're really making music baby! So understanding acidity is crucial for understanding what's going on in your glass. As illustrated by our friend Britney, you are typically taught to gauge a wine's acidity on a scale of: 

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Ok, so why is acidity in wine so crucial? Let's get into some examples...

Here's two white wines at opposite ends of the spectrum:

  • New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc = high acid

  • Oaky/Buttery California Chardonnay = low acid

That NZ Sauv Blanc tastes crisp, tart, and refreshing. The acidity makes your mouth water and cleanses your palate. A sip of that will make you antsy for the next bight (or course) of food. The cougar juice (oak-butter chard) on the other hand, feels wayyy different on the mouth right?! It's creamy, buttery, viscous, rich, and the alcohol itself is probably a bit more noticeable when you smell the wine and breathe in that sensation that brings you back to the teenage days of vodka in water bottles. It's not exactly turning your mouth into Niagara Falls. And it probably doesn't have you rushing for another bite of food.

Malolactic Fermentation

Malolactic Fermentation (MLF) takes place in all red winemaking, but not necessarily all white winemaking. So there's two main types of acid in wine- malic acid and lactic acid. Malic acid is also found in apples, and tastes sharp and tart, like, well, a granny smith apple. Lactic acid is also found in milk, and tastes like raw, unadulterated yogurt. Creamy, but slightly sour. MLF occurs after the alcoholic fermentation finishes, and converts the acidity profile of a wine from green apple to cream/butter/yogurt. Those Napa oak-butter bomb Chard's are notorious for MLF. While those NZ Sauv Blancs are notorious for intervening and blocking MLF with cool temperatures, sulfites, and filtering out the bacteria that causes the transformation in the first place. There are natural ways to prevent MLF, but that's a whole other email in itself.  

Climate and Acidity: What's the correlation?

Throughout the growing season (read: Summer), grapes are transitioning from seed to berry. After budding into a berry during the Spring, the grape essentially spends the rest of its life ripening until harvest in the Fall. They start super high in (malic) acid and low in sugar. As temperatures rise and the sun shines down on them, the sugar levels increase. This is ripening. It's an inverse relationship. Typically, high sugar means low acid and vice versa. Think about bringing home berries from the grocery store. When they're fresh on the day you bought them they're a bit firmer and tarter; a week later they might be mushy and sweet, almost like jam. The riper the fruit, the more sugar in its makeup. Same goes for when the grape is on the vine. 

So vineyards in warm, sunny sites yield ripe (sometimes too ripe) fruit with higher levels of natural sugar. The more sugar available in the grape, the more potential alcohol available in the final wine thanks to fermentation. Cool climate sites produce berries with lower sugar and higher acidity. This yields wine with lower alcohol and higher acidity levels (sugar becomes alcohol via fermentation). Generally speaking:

  • Cool climate = high acid / low alcohol
  • Warm climate = low acid / high alcoho

Let's go back to NZ Sauv Blanc and Napa Chard. NZ is far away from the equator, has tons of oceanic influence due to being a tiny set of islands in the massive Pacific. Generally speaking, the South Island (where most of this Sauv Blanc is sourced) has a cool climate. Napa Valley is located inland and gets really hot summers. Like really hot. Like this bedroom AC isn't cutting it, so I'm gonna sleep in my living room naked, kind of hot. North of 100 degrees. Consistently. All. Summer. Long. The valley traps sunshine and warm weather cycles. So the warmer sites from the Napa Valley floor (the high elevation mountainous sites are a different story) produce fruit that have higher sugar levels and lower acid levels that translate into higher alcohol wines that are usually aged in new American oak and undergo Malolactic Fermentation.  

Acidity: How to pair it?

There's essentially two types of pairings: congruent and contrasting. Congruent pairings aligns the shared flavors of two different elements. Contrast pairings juxtaposes two opposites to create a complimentary flavor marriage.

General Examples:

  • Congruent: beef and mushrooms
  • Contrast: lime and coconut

The main rule of thumb with acidity and pairings is this: you always want your wine to have higher acid than your food. Always. Otherwise the wine gets lost in the proverbial (or literal) sauce, and you might as well be drinking water. Gross. So you can either go with high acid, tart foods, and an even higher acid wine. Or you can go with something soft and creamy, and let the acid cut through it like a sword through whipped cream.

More Specific Examples with Acidity:

  • Congruent: Sauvignon Blanc and goat cheese. Goat cheese is a high-acid cheese. So it needs a wine with even higher acid. Two parallels working side by side.
  • Contrast: Sauvignon Blanc and Brie. Brie is a creamy cheese that kind of coats your palate. The high acidity of Sauvignon Blanc cuts through that cream like a hot knife through butter, refreshing and cleansing your palate so you're ready for another bight! 

I believe in high acid, low alcohol wines. They're more food friendly because you have the acidity to play with and you don't need to compete with the robustness of high alcohol. Plus high alcohol will blow out your palate, making it less perceptive to the flavors you're ingesting. Conversely they also make for a more pleasant "cocktail" wine. I would rather cocktail with a wine thats graceful, dancy, and light on it's feet rather than something decadent, powerful, and opulent with alcohol levels that singe your nostril hairs. But that's just me. Drink what you like, and do whatever makes you happy. Even if that means pairing Cabernet Sauvignon with oysters. If that's your jam (pun intended), then don't let anyone tell you you're doing it wrong. Live your best life, people!

Thanks for tripping!

-Charlie O'Leary, Founder, Rampant Wine Co. 

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