Let’s Hear It For Acid
Acid has gotten a bad rap. I’m not taking hallucinogenic drugs here, but the variety of acids you’ll find to a greater or lesser degree in all wines. The major acids are tartaric and malic. Malic can seem to be the sourer (think green apples), which is why winemakers in cool growing climates often put their wines — white, red and sparkling — through a secondary fermentation in the cellar called a malolactic conversion. The sharp malic acid is converted to the softer lactic acid (the acid in milk).
Think of the combination of these acids as creating the skeleton of the wine, the bones on which the flesh is hung. The flesh, in this case, is the fruit, so if you don’t have a firm frame on which to support the fruit, you’re going to experience a flabby wine that lacks structure.
The taste of a wine — be it fruity, vegetal, floral — or tertiary flavours like coffee bean, chocolate, leather or soy — is carried by its acidity. It’s the acid that gives you the impression of length, which is what we all look for as a quality factor. And more importantly, acidity adds freshness and vitality to a wine, cleansing the palate and setting you up for another taste.
A cool climate white wine that is high in acidity, such as Chablis, Sancerre, Brut Champagne or a German or Ontario Riesling makes an ideal aperitif. Next time you have a chilled glass of any of these crisp wines, take a series of tiny little sniffs and become aware of what is happening in your mouth. You will find that you begin to salivate involuntarily. The acidity in wine triggers the secretion of saliva from your glands and that stimulates your appetite. So if you want your guests to eat your food, offer them a crisp white wine before the meal. (If, on the other hand, a horde of people descends unexpectedly on you and you have nothing in the house to feed them, give them a sweet wine because the residual sugar will depress their appetite.)
Now that I have that mini tutorial out of the way, let me proceed to my rant. Too many wines these days lack acidity. They are what the Aussies call ‘fruit bombs,’ a dynamic descriptor for fruit-forward, table-ready, accessible wines that are fine for drinking at cocktail parties where the conversation is more interesting than the wines. The other descriptors that are increasingly suspect are plush, opulent, viscous and liqueur-like — all warm-climate euphemisms for lack of structure. Even richly textured gives me pause and if I read that a wine contains gobs of fruit my mind turns to Arnold Schwarzenegger in his heyday.
This is a complaint I have with many New World wines, especially from warm climates. The wonderful natural acidity in grapes is retained during a growing season’s cold nights. Warm climate regions in many cases don’t experience these, and winemakers have to add tartaric acid to their wines before or during fermentation to bring them into balance. This is a tricky business. And as with most things, Mother Nature does it best.
The winemaker has to get acidification right; too heavy a hand and the wine ends up with a hard finish and an artificial sourness that hangs disconnected from the wine. That’s why cool climate wines go so well with the dining experience because, when it comes to matching food and wine, it’s the acidity rather than the fruit that matters most. And from a biological point of view, wine is the ideal accompaniment to food.
This is because the pH of wine (the concentration of its acidity) is similar to the pH of our stomach acids that help us to break down and digest the food we eat. Red wine is especially effective since it releases nitric oxide, a compound that relaxes the stomach wall thus aiding digestion. And even those brisk white wines that you might have thought too sharp for your taste can be brilliant matches with the right dishes (usually shellfish or smoked fish). Try them; you’ll be doing your stomach — and your palate — a favour.