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The White Wine Dilemma: How Much Acidity Is Too Much

By Charles Olken

You may have heard that the San Francisco Bay Area is all agog over the doings of a basketball team made up of overgrown men playing a children’s game. I used to play that game myself. In fact, in the eighth grade, I was pretty good at it. Then everyone else got tall and I didn’t. I may have been okay at other sports but my basketball playing days got left on the ground. Well, I never forgot my love of basketball, and lately, the locals have been great fun to follow. I do like my curry.

So it was on Sunday past that Mrs. Olken and I join a small throng of enthusiasts at a basketball watching party. We happily bring our share of food to such events, but what separates the Olkens from the rest of herd is that we bring the wine. And it is never just any wine. The only wine in my cellar is wine I want to drink, and, one of the gifts of occupational hazard is that I not only like to drink good wine, but I know what wine I consider good and that is what I bring. Yes, I like to please the palates of our friends, but I mostly like to please my own palate. And so far, most of our connections seem to like what I like.

Our host that day was a wine drinker—and nothing unusual in that in the Bay Area. Lots of people drink wine and many of them are fairly knowledgeable about what they like and why. Sure, they do not taste thousands of wines to find their favorite few bottles to bring home. That’s my job. But, one will find at least a fair smattering of knowledge about wine in most homes and a desire to talk about wine from time to time.

On this occasion, I had brought along a couple of Sauvignon Blancs to go with the Pinots and Zins, Chards and celebratory bubbles. Our host, a woman I know well, was delighted to find the Sauv Blc. “I drink a lot of Sauvignon Blanc these days”, she intoned. “I like the fresh, zesty versions a lot”. She is part of the trendy set that has seen its tastes in wine shift away from the “buttery Chardonnays” for which she used to ask, and she also allowed that she has a soft spot in her palatal preferences for Pinot Gris.

Now, if you have been reading this blog, or better yet, Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine, you know that we here do not tell people what they are supposed to like, but only what we like. So, do not hold it against my dear friend that she loves the acidity of her Sauvignon Blancs and loves the acidity in her Pinot Gris. Because dear readers, I did not have the heart to tell her that Pinot Gris is notoriously low in acidity. Sure, it can be fruity and fresh, light and inviting, but it is the rare Pinot Gris that challenges Sauvignon Blanc in the “brisk, crisp, zesty” sweepstakes.

And so the question then must arise. How much acid is too much? How much acid is too little? The simple answer for our host is “whatever I like”—and no one is going to argue with that. And, of course, I did not. Still, acidity is definitely “in” these days.

This is where the ultimate questions of too much and too little can wander off into the tall grass of balance complete with equations that include items of like alcohol level, residual sugar, total acidity, pH, variety, winemaking style, oak and several other components. And while the professionals at our tasting table may be able to frame answers of sorts using those factors, the best answer is, has always been, somewhere between lemon juice and water. It used to be that the somewhat lower acidity and big richness factors of Chardonnay were considered “balanced”. These days, it is more likely to be Sauvignon Blanc and early-picked Chardonnay. Tastes change.

But within the peculiarities of stylistic variation, there is still the problem that very low acidity can make a wine taste flat and too much can bring the pucker of fresh-squeezed lemonade without the sugar. I would love to give a final answer to the white wine dilemma, but it turns out that I am not the person to ask. I love the zestiness, biting acidity of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc even if I worry about whether I will have any tooth enamel left at the end of the day, but I will not ever give up on my buttery Chardonnays either. Somedays, I choose high acid whites for salmon and some days I choose round and rich Chardonnay. But whichever one it is, the wine has to have other attributes like fruit, depth, focus.

And therein lies the answer. The right level of acidity is that which tastes good to me. And the wrong level is that which either gets in the way of tasting the wine or does not do anything to lift the wine beyond dullness. Acidity is not the only requisite component in wine, and maybe we focus too much on it these days, but I could think of worse topics in wine conversations—like natural wines and alcohol statements on labels.


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Right Level
by TomHill
Posted on:6/7/2016 5:23:37 PM

Charlie sez:"The right level of acidity is that which tastes good to me."


   What you're saying is certainly one facet of the "right" acidity level. But there is a bit more to it than that. The level of acidity also plays a crucial part in the ageibility in a white. It used to be my rule of thumb in choosing Alsatian Riesling, that the more searing/screechy acidity the wine had, the more potential it had to develop into something really great.....the more inpalatable it was when young because of the acidity..the better it was going to be down the road. That rule of thumb held me in good stead over the yrs back in the '70's-'80's for Alsatian Riesling. And then along came the Z-H  winemaking style of high ripeness/low acidity.....and I had to abandon that rule of longer worked.

   Same rule, more or less, worked for German Rieslings.

Alas....the glories of a well-aged Rieslings seems to be a lost attribute anymore.

See you Thurs.



by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/7/2016 5:32:28 PM


I share your interest in long-aged whites. The very best Chardonnays, Sauv Blancs, Rieslings in my experience have all been wines that have aged for a decade and more. Certainly acidity has a lot to do with that, but in our retrospective tastings, we have found also that the better a wine is when young, the more we have liked it when it was older. 

Now, that is not universally true, of course, because ageworthiness is not determined by numbers or taste when young but by taste when aged. And too many wines that seemed ageworthy have let me down for me to believe that there is anything but a general rule of thumb, and that rule of thumb includes the quality of the cork, which is an unknown when the wine goes into the cellar.

by ron drinkhouse
Posted on:6/9/2016 1:12:49 PM

No Subject
by Bob Henry
Posted on:6/11/2016 11:59:40 PM

You used to play roundball under the tutelage of James Naismith . . . right?

How's your two-handed set shot these days?

Aging white wines
by Bob Henry
Posted on:6/12/2016 12:10:50 AM

Charlie and Tom,

I "inherited" from a wine cellar reorganization client dozens of mixed cases of Alsatian whites (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc) and German Rieslings dating back to 1971.

I am savoring them now.

Some of the bottles' corks have failed.  Other bottles evinced a moldy bouquet and flavor.  But the ones that have held up are marvelous.

Since these wines didn't go through ML, their elevated level of acidity [*] has served as a natural preservative -- allowing them to age nicely.

~~ Bob

[*Or the elevated levels of residual sugar for the Spatleses and Ausleses.]




Aging white wines (postscript)
by Bob Henry
Posted on:6/28/2016 7:19:06 PM

Tonight I am drinking a bottle of 2003 Domaine Weinbach "Cuvee Laurence" Gewurztraminer Altenbourg (Alsace, France).

A "wow!" experience.

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