24 Mar 2011

The Author

Adam Eisenberg is a wine writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. When he's not scribbling notes in front of a glass, or hunched over his laptop, you can find him on his bicycle, which he rides...lots.

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Wine 101: Acidity, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Loire.
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Wine 101: Acidity, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Loire.

When I was six years old I watched a cut-open apple slowly fade from glistening white to rusty brown. Jeez mom, what happened? Well, apples turn brown for the same reason fine white Burgundy does: oxidization.

And as many first graders know, the trick to keep an apple from turning brown is lemon juice, or technically speaking, acid. Acidity is also what keeps wine tasting fresh, what helps it age, and what makes it go so well with food. Wine without acid, is like fruit without acid—it would be limp, cloying, and lacking the snap we get when a fresh orange alerts our senses that it’s time to get up.

Yet acid is one of the most overlooked chemical components of fine wine. When wine writers and critics applaud a wine for its aging potential, they are quick to lavish over tannin and alcohol, but really, what keeps the apple from turning brown is acidity.

But before you think we’ve checked our bags at the Albert Hoffman hotel, let’s drop a little wine science. There are over thirty different types of acids in wines, but the stars of the Electric Kool-Aid pH test are tartaric, malic, and a wee bit of citric. During the ferment party lactic and succinic acid crash the gates. If there’s malolactic fermentation going on (almost always in reds and often in those buttery whites—Chardonnay we’re looking at you) the malic goes all lactic, and things get mellower from there.

OK, forget the science. I don’t fully get it either. The important thing about acidity is that it protects the wine and provides structure. Or more to the point, when your mouth gets a little tingle, when you salivary glands go into overdrive, when the sides of your jaw tell you that something tart and delicious has entered the fray—that’s acidity.

All wines have it, but the biggest acid-hounds of the wine-universe come from the cooler climates, where the grapes tend to ripen slower and produce less sugar. Places such as the Mosel, Burgundy, and the Loire Valley. When there’s more sugar in the wine—and all wines have loads of it, either in the form of alcohol or residual—it’s harder to taste, or feel the acidity, and so low acid wines can seem flabby. California, South America, and the Southern France have a more difficult time producing lively wines, and as a result the wines are often acidified—meaning someone dumps in the white powder to give the wines a boost.

Of course, these are huge generalizations, but they are born in fact not bias. Where there is a bias, at least a personal one, is towards wines that show terrific natural acidity, like the Cabernet Francs of Olga Raffault or JJ Prum’s magical Mosel Rieslings. These are wines that might not show their best on their own when competing next to bigger, softer wines, but with food, there is no comparison.

Think about a perfectly seared piece of hanger steak, with that lovely fat and mouth watering denatured protein. It’s a rich mouthful, and acidic wines both cut through the fat of the meal as well as clean your palate and ready you for the next bite. You can even do the unthinkable, and pair Mosel Riesling with steak, because just like tacos with lime juice (something everybody loves) the acidity in Riesling can add an extra pop.

OK fine. You don’t want steak and Riesling. Understood. But what about Burgundy? Or Barolo? Part of what makes those wines age so gracefully (literally for decades) and go so well with big meaty meals is the acidity. Bordeaux has it too (although to a lesser extent) as do Riojas. Often it’s the vintage or the winemaker that has more to do with the pH than the longitude.

So the next time you sip, ask yourself: Is this wine a racy or limpid? Does it coat my mouth or clear it? Does it make my mouth water or make me need a glass of water? Or, to bring us back to first grade again, is this wine a brown apple or a fresh one? Personally, I prefer the fresh one, but who knows? Maybe I’ve had just a bit too much acid in my wine over the years.

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