With my newfound navigator, body style, guiding me through the maze of wines, I began to notice that wines did, in fact, have inherent, and somewhat fixed body styles. I found that Chenin Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, generally, had lighter bodies than, say, Napa Chardonnay. And for reds, I noted that Beaujolais, Pinot Noir and Merlot were lighter than Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.
However, as I swirled and spilled my way through various tastings, I perceived differences between wines that had nothing to do with their body styles. I observed that Sauvignon Blanc, for example, had more “zing” than, say, Chardonnay. Further, I noticed certain reds, especially Beaujolais and Pinot Noir displayed, among other qualities, a livelier personality than, say, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. So why did certain wines have more vitality and zip on my palate than others? What was that lively boost—that pleasant, somewhat edgy, palate tingle?
That distinguishing element was acidity. “Acid,” for many of us, calls to mind words like “hydrochloric,” “sulfuric” and “phosphoric” and other unsettling images of caustic industrial chemicals. One should, however, ignore those and focus on the more agreeable ones like acid trip, acid rain and acid reflux. I jest, of course. But to be sure, I am speaking of a positive and vital structural component in wine. One that a prominent British wine expert identifies as “the nervous system of wine . . . that gives it purpose, life, zing, and finish.” Furthermore, that description applies equally to the function of acidity in numerous fruits and vegetables (and their juices), as well as colas and soft drinks, all of which are part of the daily American diet.
A wine’s level of acidity is primarily determined by the inherent nature of the underlying grape from which it is made, as well as its home vineyard. Cool northern weather locations in Germany, for example, tend to produce more acidic wines than, say, those from the warmer southern vineyards of France‘s Rhone Valley.
Finally, while both red and white wines have acidity, it’s with whites where it’s most important and where you should focus your palate’s attention. Wines with too little acidity are described as flat, dull, or flabby; those with too much are lean, angular or tart; those that are balanced are “crisp.” Individual palates differ greatly, and one person’s soft, low acid wine may be another’s screeching, electro-shock ordeal. So, look for the ones that give you that crisp, lingering finish and refresh your palate between bites of your loved one’s latest gourmet creation. That’s the real litmus test.