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Education Reviews Wines

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 

Education

THE RENAISSANCE OF SOUTH AFRICAN WINE – PART 2

Swartland vineyards
Photo Credit: Swartland vineyards, Wines of South Africa

In part 2 of my South Africa series, I look at some of the exciting Western Cape wine growing districts and wine producers cropping up on our liquor board shelfs. Click here for a map of the Cape winelands (courtesy of Wines of South Africa). 

The majority of South Africa’s vineyards are situated in the Western Cape, in proximity to the coast whose cooling influence tempers the otherwise baking hot growing season. This results in good acid retention and balanced wines.  Value priced offerings will often be labeled under this large, generic region or the sub-zone of the Coastal Region. These wines can be blended from across their delimited territories.

Smaller sub-divisions (named districts and wards) exist when we move up the ladder to mid-range and premium priced wines. Within these smaller vineyard areas, more specific styles emerge. The following are just a handful of the most exciting, high quality districts that we are starting to see in regular rotation here:

ELGIN: Attractively aromatic whites and vibrant light reds flourish here due to the combined cooling influence of southerly winds and moderate elevation (350 metres above sea level). Elgin lies in a basin of the Hottentots-Holland Mountains, south-east of Stellenbosch.

Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc make up the bulk of white wine production, while Pinot Noir and Syrah account for much of the red wine. Paul Cluver is an excellent, mid-sized Elgin producer making consistently high quality, good value whites and reds.

STELLENBOSCH: Likely the best-known district of the Cape Winelands, wine production in Stellenbosch dates back to the 17th century. Less than one hour’s drive due east of Cape Town, the terrain here is mountainous with sufficient rainfall and well-drained soils. While a wide diversity of soil types and mesoclimates exist (owing to the varying exposition and altitude of plantings), many of the most prized vineyard sites lie on ancient decomposed granite or sandstone beds. The climate is generally hot and dry, with cooling afternoon breezes from the south-east.

Cabernet Sauvignon is king here, though Pinotage, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are also produced in abundance. Over 170 wine producers call Stellenbosch home, and trade continues to flourish. Among the many excellent wineries, Rustenberg, Glenelly, Vergelegen produces good, mid-range to premium priced Bordeaux Blends, Waterkloof for fantastic, biodynamic Rhône style blends and Ken Forrester for clean, consistent, good value old vine Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.

SWARTLAND: Traditionally a wheat-producing region, the Swartland (65km north of Cape Town) has been making waves on the international wine scene in recent years as the hot, new growing region of South Africa. Hot is indeed an apt descriptor, as well as dry, making hardy, drought resistant bush vines a common occurrence. The dominant soil type is shale, with pockets of granite and schist providing interesting alternative terroirs.

The Mediterranean climate makes for excellent Rhône style reds. Lovely Chenin Blanc is also grown here. The excitement generated by Swartland’s star producers is largely justified. Fantastic, affordable quality can be found from the Kloof Street (from the Mullineux Family Wines), A.A. Badenhorst and Leeuwenkuil (bright, juicy Cinsault). Exceptional, premium to luxury priced wines from: Mullineux Family Wines and The Sadie Family.

TULBAGH MOUNTAINS: A fairly secluded valley, inland from the Swartland, encircled by mountains to the west, north and east. Due to this unique topography, cool night time air becomes trapped in the vineyards making for chilly morning temperatures that gradually rise in the hot afternoons. Soils are quite varied making for a wide variety of styles. Only 13 wine producers reside here at present, but the acclaim of their wines speaks volumes.

Traditional method sparkling wines, called ‘Méthode Cap Classique’ are gaining traction here. Syrah and Rhône blend whites are also performing well. Krone produces easy drinking, competitively priced sparkling wines, while Fable Mountain Vineyards is garnering top accolades for their premium white and red Rhône blends.

WALKER BAY: This pretty district extends from the town of Hermanus on the south coast of the Western Cape, with the majority of top-rated vineyards lying in the aptly named Hemel-en-Aarde valley (meaning Heaven and Earth). The close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean brings cooling breezes that temper the otherwise hot climate. Clay-rich soils bring a firm structure to the wines. I spent many a happy month here, working harvest and sampling my way through the vibrant, juicy wines of the region.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the star grapes of the area, though Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Pinotage are also gaining in popularity. Hamilton-Russell Vineyards has a long-standing reputation for fine, premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Bouchard-Finlayson makes very precise, focused wines from ranging from attractively fruity mid-range whites to premium Pinot Noir. Crystallum Wines regularly impresses me with their beautifully creamy, complex wines.

 

Education

The Renaissance of South African Wine – Part 1

Hamilton Russell Estate
Photo: Hamilton Russell Vineyards (by Jacky Blisson)

In Canada, we are often a little late to the party when it comes to new wine trends. So, if you still think South Africa is only good for inexpensive, nondescript white wines, you are forgiven. After all, that is pretty much all our liquor boards were stocking for years. Happily, all that is changing.

Read on for a three part series on the renaissance of the South African wine industry: why South Africa was typecast in a cheap ‘n cheerful role and how the industry has changed, what exciting regions to look for, and finally the people behind the wines.

South African wine producers often flinch when they see their wines lumped in to the ‘New World’ wine category. Indeed, the history of winemaking dates back to 1655, with the establishment of the country’s first vineyard by then governor Jan van Riebeeck. This may seem relatively recent when compared with the first Calabrian vines planted around 1500 B.C. And it may not appear to massively pre-date the Californian and Australian industries, which both originated in the late 1700s.

What makes South Africa stand apart from other New World regions in historical terms, is how quickly Cape wines rose to international prominence. While most other non-European wine producing nations saw little growth, and minimal export sales until the late 1900s, the sweet wines of Constantia were sought after by the European ruling class in the 1700s. According to the Oxford Wine Companion, Napoleon himself had the wine shipped in during his exile on St. Helena.

Despite this promising start, a series of misfortunes befell South African wine growers which slowly eroded the high quality image the famed Constantia wine or ‘Vin de Constance’ had brought. Pests in the form of voracious, grape eating birds meant that many estates picked too early resulting in thin, acidic wines. The Phylloxera epidemic followed, decimating over a quarter of the country’s plantings by 1890.

Partly in response to the variable wine quality and poor financial returns of so many wine farmers, a ‘super cooperative’ was formed in 1915 to bring unity and improve conditions. In short order, the KWV (Kooperative Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid Afrika) became a powerful, controlling force in the South African wine industry. They were responsible for setting grape and wine prices, as well as quotas for wine production. Growers were incentivized on quantity, leading to ever increasing yields.

The international sanctions imposed by the apartheid regime led to a period of isolation. South African producers were cut off from the latest innovations in viticultural and vinification techniques, and lost touch with changing international tastes and trends.

With Mandela’s liberation from prison in 1990 came a resurgence in international interest for South African wines. Sadly, by this point, most of the nation’s vineyards were in a poor state. Vineyard virus was rampant. The grape varieties planted were unfashionable; mainly Chenin Blanc, Sultana and Colombard. Wine quality was, on the whole, pretty dismal.

Given the often thin, reedy nature of the whites and astringency of the (under-ripe) reds, major market were only willing to buy in at very low rates, positioning the wines at rock bottom prices on shelf.  This set a precedent that has proved difficult for South Africa to shake off.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and the situation is radically different. The number of individual estates has more than doubled, with a growing number of small, boutique wineries commanding widespread acclaim. Massive advancements have been made in eradicating vineyard virus, reducing yields, achieving optimal ripening conditions and planting grape varieties best suited to individual vineyard sites.

The European and American press have been effusive in their praise of the new wave of top quality South African wines. Neal Martin, of Robert Parker fame, has proclaimed South Africa ‘the most dynamic and exciting New World country’. Tim Atkin MW, echoes this view, calling the wines ‘world class’.

In 2007, I spent a few months working the harvest at the top-rated Hamilton Russell Vineyards in the Walker Bay, and touring the wineries of the Western Cape. I saw first hand the incredible strides in quality. Carefully managed vineyards and impeccably clean wineries gleaming with modern technology were the norm. The producers we met were literally bursting with enthusiasm as they eagerly detailed their winemaking techniques and proudly poured their wines. It was a far cry from the cool, superior attitude I had thus far encountered when dealing with French vignerons.

High quality South African wines now exists not only at the luxury end of the spectrum, but also in the every day, sub 15$ category. Chenin Blanc continues to dominate white wine plantings, with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc also enjoying high praise. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are the two top seated reds, with increasing buzz generated by the bright, fruity old-vine Cinsault and elegant Pinot Noir. Gamey, smoky Pinotage (a South African created hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault) provides a unique taste profile that further sets this exceptional wine region apart.

While I am loathe to place the wines of such a diverse, fast changing region into one mould, it is often true that South African wines seem to strike a stylistic balance between Old World and New. While bolder and fruitier than many European wines, they still tend to be more restrained, with greater intensity of savoury, earthy flavours than many of their American and Southern Hemisphere counterparts.

Reviews Wines

A Comparative Tasting of Sauvignon Blanc

sauvignon blanc comparative tasting

Summer is drawing to a close. The kids are back in school, and it is time for me to kick my own studies back in to high gear if I want even a microscopic chance of passing my Master of Wine (MW) exams next June. So while most diligent students are hitting the books, I will be hitting the bottle…hard. It is an interesting sight to see a new mother rocking her baby in his bouncy chair while simultaneously blind tasting a flight of wines (cue the boos and hisses on my awesome parenting!). But that is how I will be spending the next 9 months. Each week a new flight, tasted with a fellow MW candidate, and a new tasting article for you lucky folks.

Our journey begins with a comparative tasting of Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley, Bordeaux, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa. This zesty white is generally high in acidity, dry, light bodied, with moderate alcohol; the definition of thirst quenching. Aromas range from citrus, grassy, gooseberry and mineral to more overt tropical notes, stone fruits and blackcurrant buds (the prettier, French description for the aroma Anglophones describe as “cat pee”). With the exception of sweet wines made from botrytised Sémillon/ Sauvignon Blanc blends, Sauvignon Blanc is generally meant to be drunk young (within 2 – 3 years of harvest), while the bright fruit aromas and bracing acidity are at their height.

I first discovered how seriously good Sauvignon Blanc can be on a visit to the Loire Valley, the presumed origin of the grape, shortly after I moved to France ten years ago. The charming, 11th century village of Sancerre is perched on a hilltop looking down on its vineyards and pastures. The streets are lined with signs boasting wine tastings and little cafés where my friends and I ate sharp, earthy Crottin de Chavignol goat cheese, the perfect partner for the local tart, flinty white wine. After an epic, 4-hour tasting with Alphonse Mellot in his labyrinthine cellars, complete with scantily-clad ladies astride model bi-planes strung from the ceiling, I was hooked on Sancerre. Elegant and light bodied, with searing acidity, and delicate citrus, gooseberry and mineral-rich aromatics…impossible not to love. Neighbouring Pouilly Fumé makes a similarly whites, though generally in a richer and broader style.

A school tasting trip to the Graves area South of Bordeaux revealed a totally different style of Sauvignon Blanc to me. First of all because they tend to blend with the Sémillon grape, and secondly due to the often liberal use of French oak. The acidity is still quite striking, but the wines have more body and a subtly creamy, nutty texture. Aromas include lemon, grassy notes, currant bud, all underpinned by the oak flavours.

While France is its historic home, New Zealand claims to be the new king of Sauvignon Blanc. The majority of plantings come from the cool Marlborough vineyard on the South Island. Intense, “in your face” grassy, asparagus and gooseberry aromas dominate here, with riper examples showing lots passion fruit and peach notes. Most wines are unoaked, with racy acidity, light body and moderate alcohol.

Less well known currently, but growing rapidly in reputation are the cooler coastal areas of Chile (especially the Casablanca and the San Antonio Vallys) and South Africa (Western Cape coastal region and Cape South Coast). Both countries produce a range of styles, from lean and crisp to more lush and tropical. Their Sauvignon Blancs are regularly described as being mid-way between the restrained, elegant style of the old world and the overt, heady new world offers. I had the opportunity to taste some fantastically vibrant examples from the Walker Bay area South East of Cape Town when I worked there. The ocean breezes drifting in from the South Atlantic Ocean give a zesty, saline finish to the wines.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose classic examples from the following producers (What do VW, PW & LW mean?  Click on my scoring system for the answer):

Domaine Fouassier Sancerre “Les Grands Groux” 2013 – 92pts. PW

Domaine Fouassier farms his vineyard according to organic, and where possible, biodynamic principles. This wine shows excellent Sancerre typicity with elegant aromas of lemon, green apple and white florals hints on the nose. It has bracing acidity, a light body, integrated alcohol and an intriguing chalky minerality on the medium length finish. Very pleasant and balanced. Lacks the concentration and depth of flavour of top Sancerre.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.10$)

Michel Redde “La Moynerie” Pouilly Fumé 2013 – 91pts. PW

The third generation of Redde sons are currently running this 42 hectare estate in Pouilly Fumé. Grapes planted on flint, limestone and marl soils are blended here to create a mineral-laden nose, underpinned with citrus aromas. Vibrant acidity gives way to a rounded, smooth mid-palate. The finish is lifted and mineral. Highly drinkable and good value for the price, though not especially complex.

Where to buy: SAQ (25.75$)

Château Cruzeau Pessac-Léognan 2010 – 89pts. PW

Château Cruzeau is owned by the highly reputed Bordeaux producer, André Lurton. A deeper yellow gold colour is the first indication of the richer, fuller Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc style. Intense currant bud, lemongrass, apple and oak aromas abound. Fresh, juicy acidity marks the palate, with a medium bodied, subtly creamy mid-palate and reasonable oak integration through-out. Short finish.

Where to buy: LCBO (25.25$), SAQ (24.95$)

Babich Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2014 – 93pts. LW

Family owned since 1916, this large, award winning estate offers high quality at incredible value. Pale, white gold. Surprisingly elegant; with less of the pungent grassiness of many comparably priced Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs. The nose is refined, with lemon, passionfruit, floral and subtle mineral notes. Lean, with racy acidity, lots of juicy passionfruit and lemon flavours and a soft, rounded finish. At less than 20$, this is a bargain.

Where to buy: LCBO (15.95$), SAQ (19.65$)

Caliterra “Tributo” Sauvignon Blanc (Leyda, Chile) – 85pts. VW

An entry level brand from the owners of leading Chilean winery Errazuriz. Caliterra “Tributo” is a clean, well-made but fairly simple offering, with pungent vegetal, guava and lemon notes on the nose. Crisp and light-bodied, with moderate alcohol. Easy drinking but unexciting for the price.

Where to buy: SAQ (16.95$)

Bouchard-Finlayson Walker Bay Sauvignon Blanc – 88pts. PW

This 25 year old winery sits on an incredible plot of land in the stunning Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and earth) Valley in the Walker Bay. Their house Sauvignon Blanc is an intensely aromatic offering though the lime, verbena, and grassy notes have a slightly acrid quality to them. More pleasant on the palate; smooth and light bodied with moderate acidity, lots of juicy peach and lime aromas through the finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.95$)