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WINE AND FOOD WEDNESDAY
12/05/2012
Wednesday Warblings
Why We Overrate Acidity In Wines

By Charles Olken

It is a commonly held belief that acidity is the most important balancing component in wine. While there are differences of opinion about what constitutes sufficient balancing acidity, one would be hard-pressed to find a wine commentator anywhere who would argue that low acidity is a good thing. I am not about to offer a different view on that subject—and yet, I am going to argue that we have come now to rely too much on acidity as a measure of virtue in wines.

Two very specific examples have put the wind up my nose on the merits of high acidity and the lack of acceptability of low acidity. The first is the argument that wines from certain areas, with cold climates and naturally high acidities in the resulting wines, are simply to be preferred to other areas with lower natural acidities. Steve Eliot and I heard this argument many times on our visit last summer to Santa Barbara County. It became a predictable mantra, and while there may have been disagreements among the vintners there about alcohol levels, there was almost no debate, especially for those in the cooler western regions of the County, about the absolute virtues of their more or less universally high acidity.

The problems with that argument are found in the wines of other areas. While it is okay to like your wines the way they turn out, it seems to me that dissing places like the Russian River Valley as inferior because the wines from that place are often lower in acidity ignores a few facts—namely that those latter wines, while not universally bitingly crisp, are still wonderfully in balance, tasty and exciting. Of course, the argument also ignores the existence of plenty of briskly balanced wines as well.

But here is the second problem, or set of problems, if you will. Since when did crackling acidity become a measure of balance? Is not balance a tasting term, not a chemical measurement? And is it not possible for wines to be deliciously in balance even with less than dramatic acidity?

These are not new arguments. We here at CGCW have been making them for years. We have spoken out for balance in Zinfandel when it began to get so late-harvest that ripeness and not fruit too often became its calling card. We have argued that what was missing in California sparkling wine a couple of decades ago was the crisp austerity that gives that product its unique character—and which now, thankfully, is seen almost across the board in mid- to high-priced local versions.

But new argument or not, the search to define balance keeps marching on, and the other day, whether the winery meant it or not, the new Chardonnays from Miner (2009 Wild Yeast and 2010 Napa Valley) have added new fuel to the fire. On the surface, and looking only at chemical statistics, these wines with acidity levels around 0.50%, would seemingly be soft, out of balance and heavy with no vitality in sight. These are not newly minted vintages, after all, with fermenter freshness to carry them. These are wines that have a certain bit of maturity.

So what happened when we tasted them blind—aside from the fact that they finished ahead of several other very good wines in our tasting? It turned out that not one taster called that fat or flabby or tiring to drink or heavy or used any other descriptor to suggest that they were out of balance hedonistically. For sure, no one also described them as brisk, crackling or racy. When we got to the end of our discussions of the wines and opened up their covers, we were very surprised to see their stated acidities. Even for us, the expectation had grown that balanced Chardonnays would necessary be delimited to acidities reaching past 0.60% and closer to 0.70%. These Miner wines were far lower and yet they were in balance to a panel of professionals who have generally tended to like wines with acidity.

There is a bottom line here. It is that acidity by itself is a measure of nothing but acidity. Balance cannot be determined by a set of numbers, does not a priori come only with elevated acidity and is an organoleptic phenomenon, not a laboratory phenomenon. And perhaps we can now come to a new maturity in our discussion of balance in Chardonnay. We can do this by tasting the wines, not reading the labels. This is not new news either, but it has just been reiterated for us by the wines themselves.


 

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Comments

Acid Balance
by David
Posted on:12/5/2012 11:34:47 AM

"acidity by itself is a measure of nothing but acidity".  I couldn't agree more.  This is true for all elements of a wines balance. Balance in wines by definition is the melding and juxtaposition of various elements.

I think we have to continue to discuss balance as a complex idea, and not let it be usurped by simple definitions based upon one factor.

Acid Balance
by Sandy
Posted on:12/5/2012 1:02:24 PM

    As a lover of commercial wines and a home winemaker, I have been interested in acid levels for a long time.

    In our club we blind taste a single wine with different acid levels or different sugar levels.  The understanding is that increased sugar will balance out increased acid and that cold will mask acid.

     Are there any  other constituents of wine that balance out acid?

Balancing Acid
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/5/2012 1:20:50 PM

Sandy--

I am no winemaker and I try very hard in my role as evaluator to avoid extended disscussions of causality. Thus, even the editorial above is based on empircal observations and not on scientific study.

That said, I think the reason the Miner wines were in balance lies in several factors There was so much livley fruit in the wines that they had their own vitality Oak makes an interesing contribution is several ways. Not only does it contribute a small amount of tannin that provides added sturdiness to the wine but oak can also, depending on its character, add a certain "tightness" to the overall character.

In the case of the Miners, those factors seem to have given the wine energy, firmness and length without imparting undue softness.

Your question, however, is what can balance acidity. My first response is fruit. I don't necessarily mean big, juicy, in-your-face fruit, but deep fruit. A perfect example of that is the Sandhi Chardonnay reviewed in our December issue. Its acidity was off the charts if measured against conventional wisdom yet the wine, admittedly at the brisk end of the spectrum had so much deep, tight yet solid fruit that the acidity fit very nicely.

When I put the Sandhi side by side with the Miners and try to figure out why one with 0.50 TA and one closer to 0.90 TA are both in balance, it certainly has to do with lots of other parts of the wine--not the least of which is the character and depth of the fruit.

Hopefully, a winemaker will check in at some point and offer much more knowledgeable comments than mine.

Thanks for stopping by.

Acid Balance
by Brian Loring
Posted on:12/5/2012 1:22:00 PM

IMHO, acid is a key component to balance.  But it's a "Goldilocks kinda thing"... too much is too much and not enough is not enough.   

After many years of trial and error, we've come to understand that the lighter the wine, the less acidity is necessary to create balance.  Our more northernly Pinots from Russian River and Sonoma Coast are actually our lowest acid wines - even though they probably taste the most acidic.  It's because the overall profile of the wine is lighter, so what acid is there stands out more.

As we move south, it becomes more and more important to find sites that hold onto acidity - because the wines get bigger and richer.  The factor causing that is latitude.  The farther south, the shorter the daylight hours, which means fruit needs to hang longer to get ripe.  That's why we like to talk about acidity in Sta Rita Hills (as Charles mentions above).  Without it, the wines from there would be flabby.  But while they may be higher in acid, they normally don't taste so due to the overall bigness of the wines. 

That's what balance is all about.  Not a hard number regarding the amount of acid, but how much acid the wine needs to balance out the other components.  And too much is just as bad as not enough. 

There was an interesting quote in a recent Wine Spectator from Michel Chapoutier that speaks to the issue of high acid wines:

"Acidity is a condom," he says. "It is security at the cost of pleasure. You need mature fruit, and for that you have to learn to let go of acidity. You don't want overripeness, of course, but we have taught winemakers today to worship acidity, and that is wrong."

Proving Once Again
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:12/5/2012 2:01:41 PM

That Michel Chapoutier is a weenie...and why I haven't carried his wines for over a decade.

Balancing Acid
by David Rossi
Posted on:12/6/2012 6:54:16 AM

Sandy,

Sugar definitely balances acidity.  So does the perception of fruit flavors.  On the opposite side tannin is more pronounced with higher acidity.

Keeping this simple for a blog answer.

acidity
by Paul Wagner
Posted on:12/6/2012 12:58:45 PM

There is huge variance in palates and what people like in wine.  And nowhere is this more apparent than with acidity.

I am an acid slut.  I like wines with higher acidity than most people.  That doesn't make me right, and it doesn't make low acid wines wrong. But I don't buy wines because of a stated acid level, any more than I suggest other buy wines based on other kinds of chemical analysis.

It's what the wine does in your mouth that matters

It's never just one thing
by Dan Sogg
Posted on:12/6/2012 6:23:55 PM

Focusing on any one metric in wine, be it acidity, alcohol, etc., will miss the boat when discussing balance. Acidity impacts our perception of tannin, RS impacts perception of acidity and so on. A single factor is never determinative in something as chemically complex as wine.

But I think it is wishful thinking to suggest that critics in general prefer high acidity. Many or even most critics consistently give higher scores to low acid wines. Some of this is due to how individual palates are wired. But much of the low acid preference is a result of tasting multiple bottles (dozens, often) throughout a day. In that context, low acidity tends to be more flattering.

As you say, there is acidity in the technical sense and flavor/balance acidity. In CA and many New World regions, many winemakers are more focused during production on the former because of microbial stability and because it can be difficult to pick fruit with the desired natural acid.

Tech sheets/labels call for judicious skepticism. Printed alcohols, for example, are often quite inaccurate.

 

 

It's just good to have people talking about acidity
by Blake Gray
Posted on:12/7/2012 9:20:25 AM

Charlie: There's not a single topic in wine for which there isn't an exception. One man's bacterial infection is somebody, somewhere's, naturalness.

I am just delighted to see the discussion of what makes a quality wine in California come around to acidity. Just five years ago, it was all about ripeness. Ripeness is rarely a challenge here, but maintaining acidity is. Wineries won't be focused on it if they're not talking about it.

Learning Curve
by Brian Loring
Posted on:12/8/2012 12:53:40 PM

Worrying about acidity and balance aren't something new.  While we did focus on ripeness levels upto about 2004, we quickly realized that although we'd sorta figured out about what it means to get ripe fruit in CA (in our opinion), we'd missed the boat a bit on acidity.  Which has brought us today to a place where we think we do consider the overall picture better.

I have a feeling that many of the current winemakers who focus so much on acidity and alcohol may have the same sort of epiphany, but from the "other direction" in that they'll realize they may have neglected truer ripeness. 

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