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Food and wine matching: acidity is the key

If you had to pick just one attribute that makes wines suitable food companions, what would it be? Acidity, surely. For both red and white wines, above all other characteristics it is good acidity that enables them to partner a wide variety of food types with some success, providing a useful foil for a variety of different flavours.

The problem here is that the modern style of ‘commercial’ wines so favoured by supermarket buyers – and increasingly by punters, too – are fruit forward, low in acidity and with smooth, soft tannins. These sorts of manufactured wines, with no hard edges and a little sweetness from the fruit, are ideal for drinking on their own, but they are average-to-poor food companions. The result? Further distance between wines and the table: that is, the healthy culture of wine being seen as a normal component of mealtimes is eroded yet more. Wine is no longer seen as something that goes hand in hand with food, which is a shame.

It’s not just the commercial wine styles that are suffering from a loss of acidity. The world’s most influential wine critic, Robert Parker, has a reputation for favouring fine wines that are low in acidity, and he’s not alone. Increasingly, ambitious winemakers are moving to a rather monolithic (red) winemaking style: concentrated, extracted, reasonably oaky with lots of slightly sweet (sometimes over-ripe) fruit, and low acidity. These wines are strikingly seductive when you first encounter them, but their appeal can fade. The greatest danger is that sense of place is lost in this winemaking style, such that there’s a real danger that in a decade’s time it will be hard to spot the difference between fine wines from Italy, France, Spain and California, for example.

Where does acidity come from? Take an unripe grape and bite into it. You’ll squirm at the tongue curling acidity. The flavour will be dominated by the complex mixture of acids, which gradually decrease as ripening proceeds, along with the rise in sugar levels that takes place in the weeks before harvest. In an ideal wine-growing region, and in a good vintage, by the time of harvest there will be sufficient sugar in the grapes together with just the right levels of acidity to produce a balanced wine. This doesn’t always happen: in cooler wine regions the addition of sugar is common (chaptalization); in warmer ones acid may need to be added. 

There’s also the intriguing balance between sweetness and acidity. Both are detected on by receptors on the tongue, but the two can cancel each other out to some extent. Take two wines, both with the same acidity, but one with just 1 g/l of residual sugar, the other 9 g/l: the latter will taste much less acidic. Conversely, a sweet wine without sufficient acidity will taste cloying and syrupy. Appropriate acidity to produce a balanced wine therefore depends on more than just the acid component. An additional factor to bear in mind is the presence of bitter or astringent components (typically tannin), that will also affect the perception of acidity. In red wines, ‘structure’ is contributed by both the acid and tannin; in whites, it is almost always the acid alone, although oak may play a role in wines that have been fermented and aged in new barrels.

Where does this leave us? To create the potential for a good food match, we are looking for wines that have plenty of acidity. However, we’re also looking for balance: high acidity through unripeness, or the addition of too much artificial acidity, is unpleasant. Judging the right amount of acidity is difficult for the winemaker because our perception of it is highly dependent on other flavour components of the wine, and in particular sweetness. The modern trend is one towards wines with low acid, and these wines don’t make ideal partners for food, further distancing wine from the table—which is where it has a great advantage over other alcoholic drinks.

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published 03/10/02