Have you ever tasted a white wine that made your mouth water and your lips pucker, maybe even making your eyes water? Surprise you? Did that seem wrong? What about a red wine that did the same? If so, it’s time to stop being freaked out by it and start embracing it! Every wine geek goes ga-ga for just these types of wine. Surprisingly, it’s not just to have wine street cred, like say, being a fan of David Lynch (I can’t seem to find any redeeming qualities in his freak-show films). These wines have a very important place in the world, particularly when it comes to food and wine pairings.
Acidity, for our purposes, exists in 3 forms in wine. Citric acid, you should know, oranges, grapefruits, lemons, all have citric acid. The second, we don’t think of as acidity, Tannins, which are the grip you get from big red wines like Cabernet. It can come from the fruit, where it gives a sensation of velvet, or oak where it is bitter like a Popsicle stick, or a combination of the 2. Tannins or Tannic acid exist mostly in red wines and are technically an acid, but when experts refer to acids, this is not usually included. The third acid is Tartaric, which is like irony in that it is difficult to describe, but I know it when I see it. It is prevalent in most white wines that have a mineral quality, and is best described as having a certain spiciness or liveliness. It may even seem spritzy without actually have any effervescence. You will find this in wines form the Loire Valley, France or most significantly from good German Rieslings. In fact, they are so abundant in German Rieslings that they often crystallize either in the bottom of the bottle or on the bottom of the cork. They will look like salt crystals and many people mistake these for a flaw in the wine, when in fact it’s just the opposite, it’s a sign of high quality and a well structured and developed wine.
Wines with high acidity are a function of 3 factors. First, is the variety of grape. Sauvignon Blanc & Riesling are inherently more acidic than Chardonnay. Second is climate. Generally speaking the cooler the climate is, the higher the acidity is. Third, is the mineral content of the soil. The 2nd and 3rd rules can trump the first. I have often had California (or Ohio) Rieslings with no acidity and I’ve also had Chablis (Chardonnay from Burgundy) that would clean dentures. Whenever a rare and difficult to duplicate set of factors contribute to a wine’s character, the result is usually something very special. Rarity aside, what place do these wines have? Americans are not accustomed to anything with acidity aside from Tomato Sauce and Lemonheads. As one of my favorite German producers likes to say, “Americans are weaned on Coca Cola and Ketchup, it takes practice to appreciate acidity in wines”. This is true, we don’t usually expect that rush of acidity, which surprises our palates, and our palates don’t like surprises. But these wines wake up our appetites, they make us salivate, which prepares us to eat. It will also pair beautifully with many foods. High Acid goes great with high fat. Want to make a butter or cream sauce less rich? High acid white is the way to go. They are also great for pairing with soft young cheeses, especially goat cheese. Great Whites with High Acid to look for include Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc form Loire, and one of my all time favs), Rueda (Spain), Pouilly Fume, Loire Chenin Blancs, Mosel and Rheingau Rieslings (The acids act as a counterpunch to the sweetness of these wines), Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc from Alsace, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (a little too stylized for me but a crowd pleaser), and of course Chablis.
Acid driven reds are a whole different ballgame. Most reds with acidity (think of the sour of cherries, or berries), can be manipulated to be less acidic and more fruity. The more acid, typically, the longer you can age these wines. Reds with acidity of note? How about Red Burgundy (which is Pinot Noir), Riojas, Barolos and Barabarescos, Beaujolais, and many of the best Syrahs, Grenaches, Tempranillos, Sangioveses and Pinot Noirs around the world. Whereas acidity in white wine often tastes like citrus. The acidity in reds can run the gamut with a huge diversity of fruit flavors. Most of the truly collectible reds are acid driven, but very few are viewed as everyday wines by Americans. We tend to like our reds fruity and straightforward. As we develop our palates, we begin to appreciate acidity even more, and in fact tend to gravitate towards wines with these characteristics.