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What Does Acidity in Wine Mean?

Acidity is talked about in wine all the time, but what does it mean? Is it the same as tannins? 

Acidity in wine can be confusing and tricky, until you get a few details and then it makes perfect sense. 

And because we are all about simplifying fine wine, we’re not going to complicate this with all sorts of winespeak and details that only someone who wants to make wine needs to know.

Tannins Versus Acidity

So first off, let’s talk briefly about the difference between acidity and tannins. In short, tannins make your mouth feel dry and acidity makes your mouth water. 

Tannins are chemical compounds found naturally in grape skins, stems and seeds. This is the reason we talk about red wines and their tannins and rarely about white wine tannins – white wines are generally made with very little to no grape skin contact, so, not as many tannins. 

Side note, tannins are also found in tea, coffee and chocolate. They bind to salivary proteins, creating an astringent or dry feeling as we drink. 

Acidity is easy to confuse with tannins at first. They both have similar sounding effects: bitterness or astringency and sourness. But those things actually hit your taste buds differently, in different places on your tongue. Acidity – the sour effect, is felt on the sides of your tongue, and tannins – the bitter or astringent feel, hits you at the back of your palette. In winemaking, acidity’s sourness balances out sweetness, alcohol and tannin’s bitterness. Winemaking is a delicate art, and if you’ve ever had a white that feels like biting into a granny smith apple, it’s out of balance and too high in acid. Acid helps your wine feel bright, light and crisp, but if it goes too far you get a tart wine. Too little and you can have a wine that feels dull, heavy or too sweet. 

The Four Major Acids in Wine

For the more scientifically inclined, here’s a breakdown of the acids found in wine and how they affect the final glass you're drinking. 

The four major players that affect a wine’s acidity:

1. Terrior – all of the environmental factors that go into where a grape is grown, but specifically the climate. Grapes grown in warm regions are less acidic. 

2. Ripeness – the longer the grape stays on the vine, the less malic acid it will have.

3. Aging – often wines naturally high in acid are aged to let malolactic fermentation occur which turns the natural malic acid into lactic acid. 

4. If a winemaker adds acid to change the overall balance of the wine.

But what do we mean when we say acid? We’re not talking about volatile acids like hydrochloric are we? Nope, just regular food acids including:

  • Tartaric
  • Malic
  • Lactic
  • Citric

But really it’s mostly about the tartaric and malic acid, as they make up 90 percent or more of the total acid found in wine. 

  • Tartaric acid is a fixed acid, which means it’s not as influenced by the other acids and that makes it good for stabilizing the finished product’s color, aroma and taste profile. The concentration of this acid depends a lot on a grape’s growing climate, soil content and the grape variety itself.
  • Malic acid is found in most fruits and berries and decreases in availability as the plant or vines get older, with the amount varying for each grape varietal. Malic acid is responsible for tartness. If there is too much, a wine will taste sour, too little and it will feel flat. 
  • Lactic acid absorbs malic acid, giving wines – especially chardonnay and our Profile Two and your bigger bolder reds like our Profile Five – a more complex, round, buttery and/or creamy feel. Most red wines and several whites (especially chardonnay) are encouraged by winemakers to go through this process, called malolactic fermentation or MLF.

  • Citric acid is last on the list because we find it in the smallest quantities – grapes have about five times less citric than tartaric acid, which is good, as it’s very very sour – think lemons and lemon rinds. Citric acid is most commonly used as an additive – in micro quantities – after fermentation to adjust the balance of the final product. 

You now probably know more about acids in wine than you ever wanted to know, but we’ll leave you with this. When you’re looking for a wine and you see that it has high acidity, you’re looking at a wine that should taste bright, crisp and tart, even lush and leave a slightly sour (but in a good way) taste in your mouth. You can also think of it this way – if you like these characteristics, you enjoy a more highly acidic wine, so when you’re not at home drinking your favorite BOXT house wine, you can ask for what you like either by the acid content or the way it tastes. And now you know you don’t even have to worry about tannins. You’re welcome.

Want to try our wines that are higher in acidity? That would be our Profiles One, Four and Nine.

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