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Acidity in Wine & Why it Matters

acidity in wine

What do experts mean when they praise acidity in wine? Critics regularly enthuse about the racy acid of a German Riesling or the lively, crisp nature of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Why is acidity so important in wine appreciation?

According to tasting expert Michael Schuster in his excellent, Essential Winetasting book: “Acidity shapes and puts into relief the flavours in wine”.  Consider a well-made Beaujolais or Burgundian Pinot Noir. The red berry and cherry notes seem to pop on the palate. This is due to the acidity in wine lifting and highlighting the fruit; giving it a juicy, tangy quality.

“Acidity shapes and puts into relief the flavours in wine”.

Acidity is a crucial factor in wine balance. Low acid wines – think cheap Viognier from a hot region – can feel flat and heavy. Sweeter wine styles lacking sufficient acidity are cloying. High alcohol wines, without freshness, appear almost thick on the palate and warming on the finish.

Balance is the ultimate gauge of wine quality. When all components that make up a wine’s character – its flavours, body, acidity, alcohol, dryness/sweetness, tannin, etc. – are in harmony, you may barely even perceive them individually. Rather, they coalesce to form a cohesive whole.

Acidity is a crucial factor in wine balance…though what constitutes balance is entirely personal…

What constitutes balance, when it comes to acidity in wine,  is entirely personal however. High acid white wines like Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc can appear pleasant to some, and aggressive to others. The combination of high acidity and a very dry palate (˂2 grams/litre of residual sugar) can appear particularly austere to many tasters. Residual sugar (occurring when fermentation is stopped before transforming all grape sugars into alcohol) can be a good thing for highly acidic wines, softening their sharp edges. It may surprise you how many notoriously high acid, seemingly dry wines are actually slightly sweet. Champagne, Riesling from multiple origins, and many New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc are just a few examples.

The capacity of a wine to age well is also greatly impacted by its acidity; notably when it comes to white wine. Acidity in wine acts like a preservative, significantly slowing down oxidation and playing a role in bacterial stability.

The capacity of a wine to age well is also greatly impacted by its acidity; notably when it comes to white wine.

It might be a little more apparent now why wine writers use so many terms to describe acidity in wine. In case you are wondering how to situate all of these weird and wonderful words on the scale of low to high acidity, I tend to use the following lexicon:

Low acidity: soft, lush, flabby, thick, heavy

Medium acidity: moderate, round

Medium + acidity: fresh, bright, lively, vibrant, brisk

High acidity: crisp, zesty, zippy, racy, bracing, piercing, laser-like, tangy, mouthwatering, steely, firm

Overly high acidity: sharp, jagged, tart, hard, malic, sour

Here is a selection of pleasingly balanced medium + to high acid wines that I have enjoyed recently:

(What do VW, PW, LW mean? Check out my wine scoring system to find out.)

Man Vintners Chenin Blanc Free-run Steen 2017, Western Cape, South Africa – 88pts VW

Attractive notes of yellow fruit are underscored by steely, mineral hints on the nose. Zesty acidity is matched by a taut structure and vibrant, ripe lemon flavours on this light bodied, unoaked Chenin Blanc. Clean and citrussy on the finish. For more on the Chenin Blanc grape, click here.

Where to buy: SAQ (17.05$)

Paco & Lola Albarino 2017, Rias Baixas, Spain – 89pts. VW

Not as exuberantly fruit forward as certain Albariños, but very pleasant all the same. Bright floral aromas mingle with candied white fruits (apple, pear, peach). Light in body, this crisp, yet rounded easy-drinking white features tangy orchard fruit flavours and saline hints on the finish. For more on the Spanish grape: Albariño click here and scroll down to the 4th paragraph (on Galicia).

Where to buy: SAQ (18.20$), LCBO (19.95$)

Domaine des Fines Caillottes Pouilly Fumé 2017, Loire Valley, France – 91pts. PW

I liked this so much in a recent blind tasting that I immediately went out to buy another bottle. Drinking very well now despite its youthful vigour, this aromatic Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc is brimming with gooseberry, tropical fruit, and grapefruit notes. Upon aeration herbaceous nuances and hints of oyster shell develop. Bracing acidity is ably balanced by the medium body and expansive palate structure. Bone-dry and unoaked, with a long, lively finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.40$)

Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Turkheim 2016, Alsace, France – 93pts. PW

Fantastic value for the price. Intensely fragrant and complex, with spicy aromas (cinnamon, clove, and star anise) overlaying yellow fruits, white flowers, and wet stone nuances. The medium bodied, earthy palate is lifted by pure, racy acidity and a steely structure. Mineral hints and bright yellow fruis linger on the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (27.10$)

Oremus “Mandolas” 2016, Tokaj, Hungary – 92pts. PW

This wine is made from the Furmint grape in the Tokaj region of Hungary, better known for their sweet, botrytised Tokaji wines. An incredibly stylish wine with intriguing hints of fennel, anise, and lemon on the nose. Crisp and highly textural on the palate, with medium body and a concentrated core of lemon, quince and orchard fruit. An attractive touch of phenolic bitterness frames the long finish nicely.

Where to buy: SAQ (30.25$)

Bret Brothers Mâcon-Villages “Cuvée Ephémère” 2016, Burgundy, France – 93pts. PW

I have yet to be disappointed by a wine from this producer. This lovely Mâcon is no exception. Lovely honeysuckle, yellow peach, and stony mineral notes feature on the nose. The palate is brisk, full-bodied and richly textured with good depth of flavour (yellow apple, peach, mango hints). The fruit is tangy and bright on the long, mineral-laced finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (35.50$)

Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly Cuvée Les Sept Vignes 2016, Beaujolais, France – 91pts PW

I tasted this first at the domaine earlier this summer, and subsequently bought a bottle upon returning home. Firstly, because it was so good. Secondly, because it was the same price at the cellar door and here! This wonderfully lively red features brisk acidity, and juicy red berry, cherry, violet, and spiced flavours. It is medium bodied, with earthy hints from ageing in oak oak foudres, and lovely, velvety tannins. Serve slightly chilled.

Where to buy: SAQ (24.55$)

Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Riserva 2014, Tuscany, Italy – 92pts. PW

I tasted a series of Chianti from this producer recently, including an exquisite 2013 ‘Vignetto Il Poggio” that was pretty darn near perfection in my humble opinion. Sadly, the 99$ price of this wine is a little out of my reach…sigh. For less than half that price, this Chianti Classico Riserva is really fantastic. Enticing aromas of sweet, stewed tomatoes, red cherry, dried herbs, and potpourri feature on the nose. Very fresh on the palate, with a lovely chalky texture, medium body, and spicy, cedar hints. The tannins are still a little firm. Cellar for 2 – 3 years, or serve with red meat to soften the tannins.

Where to buy: SAQ (35.25$), inquire with agent about the “Il Poggio” 2013: Elixirs Vins & Spiritueux 

Reviews Wines

Breaking out of the wine rut

Bernard-Massard
Photo credit: Bernard-Massard

It is easy to get stuck in a wine rut. We know what we like and the temptation is to just pick up more of the same, reliable labels…the same way we always buy Coca Cola or Oreo cookies. But while the majority of ingestible consumer goods are painstakingly crafted to taste exactly the same from one batch to the next, wine is a much more elusive beast.

Even producers of large scale commercial brands aiming for consistency of style admit to some vintage variation from year to year. You just can’t beat nature. Despite all the tools in the modern winemaker’s armory, a vintage with non stop rain and cool weather through out the growing season is just not going to produce the same wine as a hot, sunny year. And this is a good thing! It is one of the key factors that set wine apart and make it so endlessly fascinating (at least to geeks like me…).

So with the knowledge that you can’t rely on your Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to taste exactly the same every time you purchase, isn’t it time to mix it up a little? Wouldn’t it be fun to show up at the next dinner party with a wine that no loud mouth can claim to know better than you, or suggest that an alternative winery in that region makes a better version? Here are a few interesting countries/ regions to think about…

Wouldn’t it be fun to show up at the next dinner party with a wine that no loud mouth can claim to know better than you?

Luxembourg. Yes, it is easy to forget about this teeny, tiny country of just over 500 000 inhabitants that would fit into Canada almost 4000 times over. Nestled in between the border of North East France and central Western Germany, it might (reasonably) seem too cool a climate for quality wine production. And yet, on the other side of the Mosel river, Germany produces incredible whites that have been revered for centuries.

Luxembourg grows much the same grapes, but produces wines in a drier, more nervy style. Its international reputation is largely based on its fine Brut Crémant sparkling wines. As per Champagne, Luxembourg sparkling wines are produced using the traditional method of secondary fermentation in bottle. The resultant wines are generally quite dry, with elegant, vinous aromatics, lively acidity and subtle creaminess. They make the perfect apératif wine, at a fraction of the price of many comparable bubblies.

Hungary. While the sweet wines from Tokaji are world renowned, the dry wines of the region are less well known. And yet the grapes that comprise the noble rot versions lend themselves well to dry wine production. Furmint is thought to be the off-spring of the almost extinct Gouais Blanc variety, making it a half-sibling of Chardonnay and Riesling. Dry Furmint is noted for its firm acidity, light to moderate body and smoky, citrus, orchard fruit aromas. Hárslevelű , the secondary blending grape in Tokaji, is a bigger, more full bodied white with spicy, floral aromatics.

Greece. It seems like more and more Greek wines are popping up on liquor board shelves these days, so perhaps this is a little less exotic for some. Unfortunately, many think only of the pine resin flavoured Retsina when they consider Greek wines. Excellent dry whites, rosés and reds are in abundance in all corners of the mainland and islands of this sunny paradise.

Excellent dry whites, rosés and reds are in abundance in all corners of the mainland and islands of this sunny paradise.

The white grape Assyrtiko of the Aegean Islands, thrives in the volcanic soils of Santorini, where a light, crisp, mineral-edged style is produced. The most widely planted red is Agiorgitiko (pronounced: Ah-yor-YEE-te-ko). The style is a little harder to pin down as, depending on the region and winemaking style, it can range from soft and smooth, to fairly robust and tannic. The majority of commercial styles feature fairly low acidity, plush, plummy fruit and rounded tannins; best served slightly chilled.

Bulgaria. Though it may be hard to believe today, Bulgaria was the second largest wine producer world-wide in the early 1980s. Anti alcohol regulations put in place in the region by Gorbachev, followed by the demise of the country’s communist regime led to a sharp decrease in vineyard cultivation. Production levels have crept back up in recent years, with foreign investment in the now privatized vineyards. While volumes remain far lower than at their heyday, the quality is far superior.

The Thracian Valley in Southern Bulgaria has a moderate, continental climate ideal for producing hearty, fruit-laden reds. While the area is best known for full-bodied, oak-scented Cabernet Sauvignon, wineries are increasingly diversifying their offer to include interesting indigenious varieties like the bold, spicy Mavrud or earthy, fruity Pinot Noir.

Here are a few of my recent, great value finds (What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out).:

BM_Cuvee_de_lEcusson_rose_136x520   PajzosTokaji    cq5dam.web.1280.1280 11885377_is

Photo credits: Bernard-Massard, Château Pajzos, LCBO (Argyros bottle shot), SAQ (Soli bottle shot)

Bernard-Massard Cuvée de L’Ecusson Brut Rosé NV – 88pts. VW

Pretty, salmon coloured pink colour. Inviting aromas of ripe red berries and subtle floral undertones feature on the nose. Lively acidity defines the palate, with tart berry flavours lifting the palate, and a subtle creamy mid-palate weight. The bubbles are fine and persistent. Dangerously easy drinking; pairs really well with sushi.

Where to Buy: SAQ (20.65$), not currently available at the LCBO, but the white is a bargain at 18.95$)

Château Pajzos Tokaji Furmint 2015 – 89pts. VW

Pale straw in colour. The nose opens with moderately intense aromas of lemon curd, hawthorn flowers and orchard fruit. While light in body and in concentration, the rounded structure provides a nice counter weight to the bracing acidity, making for a very refreshing white. Sweet citrus and faintly grassy flavours feature on the finish. Amazing value for the price, in a very classy package.

Where to Buy: (SAQ: 15.15$)

Argyros Assyrtiko IGP Santorini 2015 – 90pts. PW

Pale straw in colour. Intriguing nose featuring anis, saline aromas, citrus and underlying herbal notes. Tangy and fresh on the palate, with crisp, lemony acidity, a light, linear structure and lingering saline, citrus notes through the finish. Unoaked, well balanced and utterly drinkable.

Where to Buy: LCBO (22.95$), SAQ (22.15$)

Soli Pinot Noir Thracian Valley 2014 – 87pts. VW

This is an interesting little Pinot Noir, with a smoky-edged, earthy, moderately concentrated red and black berry profile. The fresh acidity is nicely counterbalanced by medium weight, bright fruit and ripe, just slightly chewy tannins. Serve chilled, with grilled, herb crusted meats.

Where to Buy: (SAQ: 15.30$)