W.T.F. - Wine Terminology Fridays
Acidity is found naturally in grapes and contributes to the freshness, verve and longevity of a wine. Some grape varieties naturally have higher levels of acidity than others, which can often be seen as what makes a wine ‘refreshing’, ‘zesty’, ‘bright’ or other wine tasting terms you may be familiar with. Acidity is incredibly important in a wines overall balance and length, and is also one of the most important structural components helping a wine age.
Grape varieties with naturally high acidity include Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Varieties with high acidity are often used in the production of sparkling wines, as high acidity is needed to keep alcohol content low, and to help the wine through its long development process. Stylistically, it is also important for crispness in a sparkling wine, whereas sparkling wines with lower acidity often taste ‘fat’ or ‘flabby’ – more on that later.
Grape varieties with naturally low levels of acidity often need to be picked before reaching full maturity on vine, to preserve what little acidity they have. Varieties with naturally low acidity include Gewurtztraminer and Viognier. These wines have notable body and weight (this perception is heightened by the lack of acidity) and can be described as ‘oily’ or ‘unctuous’ in texture. Wines made from these varieties that don’t have enough natural acidity will also be fat, overblown or flabby.
Acidity is also key in crafting good sweet and dessert wines. Acidity combats sweetness by creating an overall perception of a wine’s balance. Consider the difference between drinking lemon juice and Coca Cola – although both have the same PH or level of acidity, Coca Cola’s acidity does not come through in the same way due to it being balanced by high levels of sugar. This is why Sauvignon Blanc often has high levels of sugar added to it before distribution on the Australian market – consumers can’t perceive the sugar levels in the wine due to the high levels of acid balancing the sweetness.
In dessert wines, high acidity is absolutely key in creating a wine that is not cloying on the palate – mouth coating sweetness similar to eating honey. Acidity prevents this ‘stickiness’ on the palate, giving the wines freshness and a clean finish and mouthfeel. Acidity also helps to preserve dessert wine along with their sugar content (more on that later), so they have the ability to develop and age over decades.
To judge the acidity level of a wine, take a sip and swirl the wine around your mouth. Once you have swallowed this, tilt your head forward and relax your mouth muscles. The acidity in the wine will make your mouth water. The higher the level of acidity, the more saliva will be generated in this exercise. Once you have measured a few wines in this way you will have a better understanding of what high versus low acidity in a wine is.
Tannin is a word that is commonly used in descriptions of red wine. It’s something you might have seen mentioned on the back of a bottle, or in wine reviews. Tannin makes up part of the structure of a wine, along with acidity, weight and length. It refers to the drying sensation that you feel in your mouth when tasting red wine.
Tannins are part of the natural structure of a grape (known as polyphenols), and they are found in the skins and stems. These are transferred to a wine via a process called maceration, where a red wine will sit on its skins after being pressed. They can also be found in wood, and red wines aged in oak or other woods will gain additional tannin from their maturation process.
Tannins have natural anti-oxidative properties, so they also act as a natural preservative in red wines.
To counteract tannins in a wine, fatty foods are best. They soften the perception of tannins, and in turn, the molecules that make up tannins cut through fat to help release and enhance flavour. This is why steak and big reds go so well together, and also one of the reasons someone might describe a heavy red as a ‘food wine’. High tannin varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and depending on the winemaking style, Shiraz, whilst lower levels of tannins are found in Pinot Noir, Gamay and Malbec.
This term is used commonly in wine tasting notes, and is regularly confused for sweetness. Instead, fruity simply describes a certain style of wine, and the presence of fruit characters on the palate.
Another way to think about ‘fruitiness’ is juiciness – does the wine taste juicy and bright? Can you taste many different fruit characters on the palate? ‘Fruits’ in a wine fall into a number of different categories; some of the most common are tropical; (pineapple, passionfruit, mango, guava), citrus (lemon, lime, grapefruit), stonefruit (peach, nectarine, apricot), orchard fruit (apple, pear), red fruits (strawberries, raspberries, redcurrant, cherry) and dark fruits (blackberry, blackcurrant, plum,)
Alternatively, a wine described as savoury can have the following flavour characteristics: vegetal (herbs, capsicum, leaves), spice (pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg), wood (cedar, sandalwood, toast), nuts (hazelnut, almond), autolytic (yeast, bread, dairy, brioche, butter), or animal (leather, game, meats).