If the title of this blog has you dreaming of a Hunter S Thomson-influenced report on a lysergic-enhanced wine tasting, then I’m sorry to disappoint; no ‘suffer-for-my-art’ gonzo this week, as entertaining as that may sound (wait for the Meredith review for those shenanigans).
This week I’m going to talk about the role of acid in wine and why it’s such a crucial element to not only what we taste, but how the wine ‘feels’. As with most of my little dissertations, let’s start by looking at where it comes from.
Unripe fruit is loaded with acid, which is gradually converted to sugar as the fruit ripens. In the primary (alcoholic) fermentation that occurs at the start of winemaking, this sugar is then converted to alcohol. Pick the grapes too early and you will get a wine that tastes thin and ‘hard’, pick them too late and you get a wine that is ‘hot’, with noticeable alcohol and ‘porty’ flavours. Pick the grapes in the sweet-spot, and you get good flavours while retaining freshness and balance. It is no accident that the great wine regions of the old world are located in climates that only just allow the grapes to get to full ripeness, hence retaining maximum natural acidity and freshness.
Acidity is also one of the primary drivers behind a wine’s texture. Think of how a dry Riesling from Clare can feel like a lightening jolt of citric electricity across your tongue; how a sweet Riesling from the Mosel in Germany, where the cold climate often stops the fermenting yeast before it can convert all the sugar to alcohol, manages to be at once sweet but with a seemingly crisp dry finish. The richness of Chardonnay often comes from a secondary fermentation, malolactic fermentation, which converts the angular Malic acid into the rich and buttery lactic acid. Not that this is confined to white wine. In red wine, while tannin is a key component of how the wine ‘feels’ against your teeth, it is the acid that pulls the flavours and textures together, and carries the lingering tastes in your mouth.
With acid helping shape the multitude of styles and textures on offer in the world of wine, it is also one of the pillars that underpins food and wine matching. In the same way that a bit of lemon juice or vinegar provide freshness when cooking and lifts aromatics, acidity in wine not only provides freshness to the wine, but helps refresh your palate and provides contrast to the texture of the dish you’re eating. In my eyes, the matching of acid with texture in food/wine matching is far more valid than simply looking at matching wine colour with protein. Try matching a pinot-dominant champagne with a red duck curry for example – Pinot flavours with duck is a time honoured match, while the acidity of the champagne will slice through the fatty sauce. Give it a go and surprise yourself!
One of the tools available to winemakers is the addition of acid, and while this can add freshness to a wine ripened past the point of natural freshness it will never be as balanced an outcome so should be minimised where possible. This is one of the pillars of the ‘natural wine’ movement and while I agree with it (where possible), I would just call it good winemaking!
So next time you’re drinking, distract yourself from what you taste and instead focus on what you feel – as it’ll open your eyes to one of the great parts of wine drinking.