Learning to Love Wine Acids

In the last article, we focused on sweetness levels and how to detect them.  Well, we can’t have sweetness and not talk about sour.  Sour and acid are terms that get interchanged so It’s important we define them.  Then I’ll teach you strength levels and how to detect them.  The most important aspects to learn are the following:

  • How strong is the acid in the wine?
  • Where do I detect acid levels?
  • Why should we even care about the acid level?


We need to make sure that we define both sour and acid.

  • Sour
    • being, inducing, or marked by the one of the five basic taste sensations that is produced chiefly by acids and is characteristic of lemon juice.
  • Acid
    • a sour substance.

Therefore, when I refer to something being acidic, we are discussing a sour substance.  Sour will refer directly to the taste sensation just like we discussed sweetness in the last article.

Where’s Sour on the Palate?

If you look at the above diagram, we find sour sensations along the sides of the tongue.  However, there are a couple of interesting ways to detect acid.  We have all chewed on a wedge of lime (and if you have not, please go do so for this discussion 😊) and felt the pucker sensation.  This acid comes from citric acid naturally found in citrus fruits.  There are other acids naturally found in grapes in addition to citrus.  I’ve listed them below and the best example that will help to showcase them on your palate.

Grape Tannins

These can be found in the skins and seeds of the grapes.  To feel them on your palate, get some fresh grapes, remove the seeds and chew on the seeds for a minute.  That will release grape tannin mostly on the sides of your mouth.

Oak Tannins

These are found when a wine is exposed to oak in some fashion.  This extracts the oak tannin into the wine.  My best example of this is leaving a black tea bag in hot water for 10 minutes and then taking a sip.  That sensation on your teeth of them being coated in something is similar to oak tannin.

Malic Acid

These are found on the sides of the tongue just like the diagram.  However, they are strong and hit differently.  Picture yourself eating an unripe granny smith apple and you get this very hard sour tone hitting the sides of your tongue.

Lactic Acid

These are also felt on the sides.  Picture yourself eating a triple cream brie.  That soft, creamy sensation partially comes from the high fat content, but the lactic acid also contributes to the mouth feel. 

Understanding the Levels

We define acid levels in wine from low, to medium, to high (see above).  What’s the difference between a low and a high level?  Here’s a system I learned during Sommelier training that can help.  It’s related to saliva production. 

Go back to my example earlier of chewing on a lime wedge.  I have an exercise that may help understand it better.

  • Get another lime wedge ready, but this time, do something a bit different. When you start to suck on the lime, start counting internally (1000-1, 1000-2) in seconds. 
  • After about 4 seconds, you will feel your mouth flush with saliva.

The more acidic something is, the more your mouth produces saliva to ‘rinse’ your palate (aka your mouth starts to water).  That lime acid in your mouth caused a big amount of saliva to be produced.  Remember the bullet points below:

  • low acid wines = low saliva production.
  • high acid wines = high saliva production to rinse the palate.

If we look at the example above from the Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, you can see that this wine is high in acidity.  When you try it, you can feel the sensation on the sides of your tongue but pay attention to how much saliva is produced.  It’s huge right?  And if you pay close attention, it hits like an unripe granny smith apple (large proportion of malic acid).

So Why do We Care?

I was just getting to this. 😊 Wine to me is very personal.  As a sommelier, while I do have my favorite grapes and regions, I will drink everything.  Why?  Well, someone worked hard to make it!! Since they did, I will always serve it if its un-faulted.  The Chef in me looks at the wine and attempts to figure out what to pair with it.

Think about it this way.  If you have a high acid wine, that produces a high level of saliva that rinses your palate.  Now I can prepare something looking at two different directions:

  1. The high acid will rinse the palate of anything fatty. For example, I can now look at cream base sauces or fatty foods to pair with this wine as the palate will be cleaned.  The food will not feel as ‘heavy’ and be more enjoyable.
  2. High acid wines paired with high acid foods tend to cancel each other out if the levels are matched. For example, I can look at pairing the wine with pickled items or certain cheeses.  If I can balance the acid levels in both, they ‘cancel each other out’, letting the other components shine through.

How does this impact your choices for menus?  As a food lover, think of different ingredients and possible cooking techniques to use.  As a wine lover, just remember to pair some food that’s acidic with the wine to help balance it. 

Final Thoughts.

Here’s what you need to remember overall.  The goal for today is learning how to detect acid levels using saliva.  Once you know this information, you can select a wine that meets YOUR PROFILE.  If you like high acid wines, Awesome!!  If you do not, that’s perfectly fine as well.  I always come back to you and you deciding what you like and do not like in a wine. 

As we move forward with other components in future articles (next will be tannins), we are building your profile and tastebuds.  Looking forward to working with you next week.

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