One of the most common reactions you get from a nonplussed wine drinker is a screwed up face and retort of “It’s acidic!”. It appears that acid has managed to get itself a bad reputation with the modern wine consumer, but if you asked me (as a buyer) what the most important things I look for in a wine are, acidity would be close to the top of my list.
When Acidity Was Cool
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. There was a time not so long ago when a zip of crisp acidity was to be cherished, whether it be in a fresh white like Chablis or Muscadet, or a complex red from Bordeaux or Burgundy. Italian reds were prized for their acidic backbone and even in California they would keep a close eye on ripeness levels to make sure they didn’t lose too much acidity from their fruit. But those were the days when wine was seen primarily as an accompaniment to food rather than an accompaniment to a DVD. Those were also the days when alcohol levels hovered around the 12% mark and wines were sent to the cellar for a decade or so, to soften up before they were deemed ready to drink.
Acidity Gets a Bad Name
The period when ‘those days’ turned to ‘nowadays’ was the 1990s, when the rise of new world wines changed the collective consumer palate. Robert Parker championed the ‘blockbuster’ wine – high in fruit, high in alcohol, high in body and…..low in acid. These wines were rich and juicy, but didn’t pose the drinker too many questions. The fruit was sweet, the texture was smooth and the hangovers were prodigious. But, hey, it got more young people drinking wine so what’s the problem? Well, the problem with this alcoholic-fruit-juice-syndrome is that a) all the wines start to taste the same, b) they struggle to age or develop complexity and – most importantly – c) they are usually an undrinkable gloopy mess that never matches with any food.
But surely that big Aussie Shiraz doesn’t taste the same as that big Californian Cabernet? Well, ok, maybe they don’t taste exactly the same, but when super ripe fruit makes a wine low in acid, it is very difficult for it to have enough precision to set apart one vineyard from the rest. Chateau Pavie (from Bordeaux) will set you back a few hundred quid a bottle but even the sharpest palates would struggle to place it as Claret in a blind tasting, thanks to it being so souped up.
Why You Should Learn to Love it Again
Acid is also a key component in the ageworthiness of a wine. Like tannin, it acts as a preservative and enables the aromas and flavours to change and develop over time, while the core of the wine retains its’ freshness and vitality. Pinot Noir is a low tannin variety, but the high acid can facilitate long ageing and many examples will demonstrate wonderful complexity after a few years of maturity. Low acid wines get stodgier and stodgier and stodgier, until they are little more than a confused goo of stewed fruit.
But the main thing about wines with no acid is that they have no life. Acidity brings freshness, communicates minerality and cleanses our palate ready for another bite of rare meat with creamy sauce. It lifts wine, giving it clarity of flavour and purity of fruit. Above all, it refreshes and revitalises the palate to the same extent that low-acid wines tire it out.
So, don’t be afraid of acidity. Embrace it and it will repay you with crisp and complex wines that pair brilliantly with food.
Mark Andrew has worked in the industry with wine merchants for the past 5 years and has a particular interest in French wine. When he’s not online or at a tasting he enjoys football and wandering the vineyards of his beloved Burgundy.
Picture – Heather Katsoulis