The other day, a colleague of mine drew a comparison between ‘hop-head’ beer fanatics and the wine drinking equivalent he refers to as ‘acid freaks.’ I thought that was pretty good. He had a point. If flavors were a melody, both would stand on one end of the piano, methodically beating down on the highest of keys, with an energy so distinctively felt on the palate. Both hops and noticeable acidity provoke an immediate response. And typically, in my experience, if prevalent in either beverage, this response is typically repulsion or an excited raise of the brow.
I very well could be such a freak, possibly even in need of AA—Acidoholic’s Anonymous (though, I’m certain I just blew my cover… and I’m also certain I just revealed my severely nerdy sense of humour). The moment I feel the sides of my mouth watering, that old familiar zing, I know this is my kind of wine.
But why is acid so important in wine? And, can there be too much of a good thing?
I did a little research for my customers and poured for them a few ‘acid-driven’ wines just to drive the point home. What follows is not only a little synopsis of those selections, but also a deeper look into acidity itself—what it is, how it achieved, tempered, provoked and tasted in wine.
Without getting too scientific on you (or me, for that matter), there are several kinds of acids that can be found in grapes, and therefore wine. They are produced within the grape in varying levels over the course of cultivation in the fields. By the time the wine is made, higher levels of acid often point to cooler climates, whereas lower levels are often seen in wines from warmer climates. A similar model is often drawn for sugar in wines as well, lower levels from cooler regions and higher sugar levels from warm regions.
For our purposes, we will zone in on a few particular acids. The first, and possibly most important, being tartaric acid. Tartaric is responsible for much of the wine’s chemical harmony, flavors and color. A seldom-found acid in most other fruits and plants, tartaric has much presence in grapes, some more than others. Though not as drastic as malic acid, which will be discussed soon, tartaric levels can decrease in warmer climates through respiration, again supporting the correlation that warmer climate wines tend to have lower levels of overall acidity. For the most part, though, tartaric levels remain pretty consistent throughout the process from vine to wine.
The next acid that’s important to wrap your mind around is malic. This acid is less rare, as it is found in a plethora of fruits. Unlike tartaric, most is metabolized during the respiration process, leaving levels quite low come harvest. The danger in warm climates is losing all the malic acid, leaving a wine gooey, lazy and overripe. A winemaker must resort to artificial acidification (adding of acid) to balance the levels.
In some cooler regions, like Chablis, these malic acid levels have a lot of trouble finding enough sunlight and heat to fully metabolize. In order to get them lower, malolactic fermentation is employed, converting the malic acids to lactic acids (and carbon dioxide). This softens what would be a sour acidic blow to a much softer, milkier textured wine. In fact, lactic acid is what you find in yogurt. The overall acidity (referred to as Total Acidity) typically lowers after this process is complete, so for whites it is only used when necessary. In reds, this process is almost impossible to stop. To instigate malolactic fermentation a bacteria is added to the wine through the aid of a culture or naturally by way of bacterial specimens found inside a barrel.
Occasionally lactic acid can produce some really ‘off’ flavors in white wine, especially with certain varietals. When trying to avoid malolactic fermentation from occurring, another option that is utilized to temper the acid is ageing a wine on its lees. Lees are the dead yeast cells that fall to the bottom of the barrel. Some winemakers remove this immediately to maintain vibrancy in their wine. Others like Muscadet and Champagne, who need no help in that department, sing their grapes to sleep on this bed of lees for several months in order to give the wine a creamy, soft, drinkable texture.
The final acid I want you to be aware of sets itself apart from these other acids in that this particular one is volatile as opposed to, you guessed it, nonvolatile acid. This sneaky devil is known as acetic acid. Nonvolatile acids, like tartaric and malic, do not evaporate or boil off when wine is heated. Volatile acetic does. This is a good thing. You don’t want high levels in a wine. This is the acid you would find in vinegar, and who wants that in their wine? Don’t get me wrong, the production of acetic acid is natural during the fermentation process. It’s just gonna happen. In fact, it’s necessary. Acetic acid comes from the yeast cells. However, if this level doesn’t decrease as the must warms or if the wine is exposed to oxygen, promoting bacteria to react to ethanol alcohol thereby producing more acetic acid, the wine will be ruined. If the wine smells like nail polish, return it. It has too much acetic acid.
So how to detect acid? It’s rather simple. Begin with a classically acid-driven wine in order to know what it should taste like. With a wine like Muscadet, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis or Chianti, it’s hard not to get a feel for acidity. Once you’ve brought one home, pour a glass and take a sip. Hold it in your mouth. Feel the sides of your tongue watering? Is it difficult to hold it there too long—like you’re sucking on a sour sweet tart? This may seem harsh, possibly undesirable, but pair these whites with oysters or goat cheese (classic) or the Chianti with a traditional red marinara sauce, and you will learn that there is no other wine in the world better matched with these foods.
And that, my friends, is why I am such a freak for acid.
Acid-drenched wines may be hard to sip alone, but they often make for the most intense, awe-inspiring food pairings. They are wines that demand food—wines that remind you that they are meant for the table alongside a meal…paired with context.
The following are some of my favorites. Not all are over-the-top acid bombs. But all demonstrate insanely persistent acidity. The first two, Muscadet and Chablis, are the first I always think of, but as you will see, there are many more to explore out there…
Muscadet—Good, (often) cheap and sensational with scallops and mussels. Some of my favorite producers include Louis Metaireau and Chauviniere (the introductory black label at $13 is solid, but if you can try the higher tier Granit de Chateau-Thebaud at $21, it may produce a tear—Champagne without bubbles. Stunning.)
Chablis—God, I love this little corner of the world. The wines are absolutely divine. These Chardonnays carry the smell of wet pavement after the rain. I love so many producers. Unfortunately, not many are cheap. But if you can get your hands on any of the following and pair them with oysters, you will not be disappointed. In fact, they may change your life. Check out: Defaix, Raveneau (just had an ’01 and ’06—I feel like the luckiest person in the world when I sip on this wine), Dauvissat, Brocard (actually, pretty inexpensive, solid juice), Barat, Laroche (if you ever get the chance, it’s pretty well worth the hype), Verget (a negociant with killer wine at a range of prices), or the cooperative La Chablisienne (probably one of the first I ever had—that’s all it took…I was a believer at $25 a pop).
Other Acid-bombs for all you freaks:
2009 Domaine des Cognettes Gros-Plant du Pays Nantais ($12 and next door to Muscadet)
2008 Valdelainos Verdejo ($13)
2009 Ganeta Txacolina ($20—go Basque, baby)
2007 Kuhling-Gillot Rieslilng Trocken ($17—dry)
2007 Nikolaihof ‘Hefeabzug’ Gruner Veltliner ($23)
2008 Framingham Sauvignon Blanc ($13)
2008 Taburni Domus Falanghina ($14)
2009 Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc ($21)
2009 Ostatu Rioja ($15)
2006 Azienda Agricola il Borghetto “Bilaccio” ($38)
2003 Alejandro Fernandez La Granja ($20)
2008 Ca’ del Sarto Barbera d’Alba ($10)
2006 Proprieta Sperino ‘Uvaggio’ ($33)
2007 Pergliamici Toscana ($16)
2007 Domaine Monpertuis ($15)
2006 Azienda Agricola il Borghetto Collina 21 ($33)