Acidity is best known for making wine refreshing, but acid, as one of the major components of wine, has so many other important functions, too. Acidity comes from the actual presence of acids--mostly tartaric acid, and smaller amounts of malic acid. Acid is what makes your mouth pucker when you taste a lemon, and what makes your mouth water when you sip a wine with high acidity. Some wines are naturally high in acidity, like riesling, sauvignon blanc and many northern Italian red wines, while others are not, like sémillon and syrah. Natural acidity levels can be accentuated by the climate in which the grapes are grown; cooler climates tend to produce grapes with higher acidity levels than the same grape varieties grown in warmer climates because the cool climate allows the grapes to ripen while still preserving their acidity.
Acidity is crucial in wine for several reasons. The precision and clarity that acidity brings to a wine add to our perception of the wine’s structure, which is the underlying “scaffolding” of a wine. Acidity also helps wine age, so wines low in acidity, like warm climate whites--think Australian chardonnay--don’t age well because, among other things, they are low in acidity. Finally, acidity is crucial in all wines, especially red, because the pH level of wine affects compounds called anthocyanins, which, among many other roles, affect the color of a wine. As for tasting experience, high acidity is prized in white wines for the fresh and lively characteristics it adds, and in sweet wines for providing the structure and clarity needed to balance out the sugar.
Who would have thought that the same thing that makes sauvignon blanc refreshing on a hot day could be so important to wines no matter what they are or where they are from?
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Photo by Jenny Downing, "pour"