In my quest to find out what you really want to know, I’ve started checking search analytics. It’s intriguing to see that the most common searches are concerned with acid in wine. The search terms are things like: less acidic white wine, red wine with low acidity, low acid wine list
Wine is high in acid
The first thing to know is that wine is a tart beverage. Unless you enjoy eating fresh lemons, wine is more acidic than just about any food you can think of. That’s why it’s so easy to pair with food. The acidity is cleansing.
On the pH scale, zero is tart (battery acid), seven is neutral (water) and 14 is alkaline (lye, Drano). Wine normally falls somewhere in the threes. For cool-climate wine it may even dip down into the high twos – very, very tart!
The influence of climate
That said, white wines tend to be higher in acid than reds, from 3.0 – 3.5 where reds are usually between 3.3 and 3.8 (I know this is confusing: as the acid goes up, the pH goes down.) It depends upon the variety and the climate. Warm climates produce soft acidity and cool, the opposite. Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are naturally tart and Chardonnay changes with the environment: warm climate Chards, like most of California or Australia, tend to be soft and cool-climate examples, like Chablis or white Burgundy, are tart.
So, for low acid wines, in general, seek out warm climate examples: As we said, most of California and Australia, southern Italy, Argentina, eastern Washington… and keep in mind that the whites are higher than the reds.
I’m sorry to say that most of Europe falls into the cool-climate column. Of course, latitude makes a difference and Germany is waaay different from Sicily.
When you’re shopping and considering a specific wine, if you go to the winery website they often have notes that identify the pH. They may also identify the acid, but the pH is a more accurate indicator (in many cases the acid stated is only for the main grape acid – the tartaric acid – so it doesn’t tell the whole story.)
You might think sweet wines are low in acid but they’re not! The winemakers balance the sweetness with acidity so the wine doesn’t turn out tasting like pancake syrup.
Popular low-acid whites: Viognier, Marsanne and Semillon. For reds, I’d go more by climate than variety but watch out for Barbera, Sangiovese, Carignane and Grenache. They’re naturally high in acidity. Again, check the pH.
Acid vs. Tannin
But there’s this other thought nagging at me on this subject. And, that’s that lots of folks confuse acid with tannin because it’s hard to tell the difference.
To cut to the chase on tasting the difference, acid tastes tart and makes your mouth water, especially along the sides of your tongue. Tannin makes your mouth water, too, but it’s a delayed reaction. The biggest sensory difference is that tannin turns your mouth into a desert. It seeks out protein in your mouth, which is everywhere, and gloms on to it. There’s a sense of grip. It also adds to the wine’s bitterness.
Red wines are almost always more tannic than whites because the juice is fermented with the grape skins and the skins are the main tannin source. Whites are most often fermented as juice only.
Just as different varieties differ in acidity, some grapes are more tannic than others. Pinot Noir is thin skinned so not very tannic. Cabernet Sauvignon has a tough, chewy skin with lots of tannin. But the winemaker can manipulate things a great deal. Syrah is normally a very tannic variety, but a client just sent me a very smooth example to write about.
Popular low-tannin reds: Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Gamay (or Beaujolais wine), Barbera, Tempranillo
Posts like this make me wish I’d paid attention in chemistry class!
So, if you need low-acid wine for health reasons, I hope this is helpful. If you simply want a smoother experience, go for low-tannin reds or stick with whites. Cheers!
Send me your wine question I’ll get back to you in a jiffy!
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