WTF: Acidity in wines

RIMG0044Ever notice how adding some Balsamic vinegar to a salad brings it to life or how just a dash of rice vinegar adds a whole new dimension of taste to spicy Sichuan soup (or Hokkien Mee)? That’s acidity for you.

This is part of the rudimentary wine tasting framework I am developing to remind myself and to share with you the basics of wine tasting.

Acidity is the measure of how sour something tastes. Too much acidity and it tastes sour but just enough acidity provides a crisp refreshing taste. A couple of my friends would use the Hokkien word “Siap” to describe a wine with high acidity. Sweetness and acidity are closely related. When we talk about the balance of a wine, we are talking about the proportion of sweetness and acidity.

When a fruit ripens, it gets sweeter and sweeter while losing acidity. Just like “old” Pineapples are sweet and juicy while “young” Pineapples will “cut” anybody with a mouth ulcer. Getting the balance between sweetness and acidity just right in wine grapes is critical. This is where the winemaker has to make a decision to leave the grapes on the vine for a longer period or not.

Leaving the grapes on the vine for a long period develops more interesting flavours – I guess this is part of what the French mean by “Terroir” – and the sweeter the grape becomes. More sugar in the grapes mean a sweeter and/or stronger wine.

However, this means that the acidity of the grapes will drop so low that the wine will taste flat or flabby. On the other hand, high acidity can be caused by too little sunshine (resulting in slow ripening of the fruit), picking the grapes before they were fully ripe and of course, adding acid to the wine by the winemaker.

Acidity in red wines are determined by the Tannins in them. Tannin is a whole other dimension that will be fully discussed in another entry.

The delicate balance between acidity and sweetness is an important part of winemaking. Noticeable but not overwhelming acidity in white wines is a desirable quality as we expect them to refresh us while red wines are expected to provide more depth and complexity.

Whites with a marked acidity like a Sauvigion Blanc are often called “tart” or “crisp”. For white wines, some of them can even taste a little “green”, this is not a good or bad thing, it merely means that the white wine (especially young ones) has high acidity and should perhaps be stored for a few more years before drinking. White and red wines with have too little acidity are often described as “flabby” or “flat”.

I can think of no other demonstration of the fine balance of acidity and sweetness than a Sauternes. The difference between a good (I have never tasted a poor or bad) and a great Sauternes is the amount of acidity to counterbalance all that sweetness. Yes, there are other factors but the main difference is still the balance.

I often mistake dryness (lack of sweetness) for acidity, but I feel that there is a subtle difference. Dryness only means a lack of sweetness and does not mean high acidity. High acidity on the other hand means “Siap”. 😉

Posted on 30th Mar 2007 in Food and Drink, Wine Tasting Notes


There Are 6 Comments


Joel commented on March 30, 2007 at 4:23 pm

Hi Ivan,

Wow, was taking surfing around blogs when I noticed you did a couple of entries on wine tasting which is really informative for the layman like me! Kudos on the great job! Especially the translation of “siap” 😉



TTC commented on March 31, 2007 at 2:15 pm

And I always thought the “siap” comes from tannin.


Ivan commented on March 31, 2007 at 3:07 pm

@Joel: Thanks. It’s a start.

@TTC: Yup, it does too. Am compiling my notes on Tannins now.


Matthew commented on April 1, 2007 at 2:36 pm

Like to share a few points:-

*Siap = Tannins; Astrigency you feel around your gum and tongue ie drinking a cold chinese tea
*Leaving grapes on vines = Intensify rather than developing interesting flavours.
*Terroir = Loosely termed as Micro-climatic conditions ie hours of sun exposed to, amount of rainfall, composition of soils, and much more
*Acidity in red wine is actually not determined by tannins but more of which is the harvest period. Earlier, chance is that it is more acided while later would usually be less given that sugar would masked the acidity.


Ivan commented on April 1, 2007 at 4:43 pm

@Matthew: Thanks for sharing. That’s right, leaving the grapes on the vines longer “exposes” them to the “Terroir” which develops, or “intensifies” to use your term, more interesting flavours.

As mentioned, the entry here refers generically to acidity in wines which is caused by many factors one of which is storing in Oak which contains high levels of Tannic (yup yup) Acid. Some white wines actually contain Tannins from the grapes because they are crushed too hard.

However, I agree that Tannins in wine is a whole different dimension. This is why I reserved a whole different entry for it. And it looks like this entry needs a re-write to clarify certain points too.


trynotcreepy commented on May 15, 2008 at 5:56 pm

Yup, wine is good as long you don’t over drink it:)

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