Winemaking Styles/ Philosophy #2 – Acidity


Please visit my article on the Extreme Sonoma Coast


For hours, a winemaker anticipates his/her grapes arriving, pacing as updates reach them, letting them know that the long awaited truck is about to pull into the winery. The chaos is about to begin. The canvas is finally ready for another masterpiece. It’s here…What’s the first step?….The first step in winemaking at the winery is analysis of the freshly picked grapes. One major factor found in analysis is the levels of acidity. To a winemaker, along with sugars of course, this is one of the most important components that will influence the winemaker’s next few weeks of work. There are a few reasons behind this, and in this article I am going to break down how it influences a winemaker and its importance in the finished product.

Lets start with a question….Has anyone noticed the styles of wine that have grown to be popular year by year?

Notice that as of late, a really popular style is a very crisp chardonnay. In the late 80s and 90s, the BIG style was to have a VERY BUTTERY chardonnay, but that has completely turned around. Both of these styles are more driven by a winemaker’s barreling preferences, but if you look a bit deeper, you might notice a few things….where are these popular wineries located? In warm areas, or cooler areas?

Now this is a very BLACK and WHITE view but almost always accurate:
WARM temps = LOW Acids
COLD temps = HIGH Acids

Most crisp chardonnays that are really popular at the moment come from the Russian River Valley or the Central Coast…COOLER than average areas

Most buttery chardonnay in the 80s and 90s came from the central valley (Avg temps in the high 90’s to 100s during june/july/august). Mass production businesses, like Gallo, were in FULL SWING, producing millions of cases of buttery chardonnay per vintage ……today as a result, a TON of people HAAAATE buttery chardonnay…they are sick of chardonnay that tastes like theater popcorn. Most wineries who make white wines have “ABC – Anything But Chardonnay” cases that they will sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio featured.

There are two reasons they used so much oak flavor:
1) The producer used oak to mask awful flavors that existed to begin with
2) There was no natural acidity in those grapes to hold together any of the fruit that may have existed

REGIONS – A Comparison of These Different Climates
If you were to compare grapes grown in the Central Valley of California versus grapes grown along the Extreme Sonoma Coast, grown to yield the same tonnage (which with all honesty would never happen,but whatever), and to the same sugar level/phenolic maturity, the acidity levels of the Central Valley will be SIGNIFICANTLY LOWER than the levels seen from the Extreme Sonoma Coast.

To further dig into this, even if you compare the acidity levels seen from the same Extreme Sonoma Coast vineyard from the 2011 vintage compared to the 2012 vintage, you will see a notable difference in acidity levels. This is because the 2011 vintage was slightly cooler than the 2012 vintage along the coast.

Lets stick with Coastal Chardonnay as our example.

The 2011 vintage: The acidity levels were very high in grapes grown throughout California because of much cooler temps. If you don’t lower that acidity level, the finished product could be extremely intense and pretty harsh…not exactly ideal for the wine drinker. So what can a winemaker do to mellow out that acidity? Probably the easiest way is to put the grapes through malolactic fermentation after the initial alcoholic fermentation. The Malolactic fermentation is a process where the harsher, sour Malic acid is converted to a softer Lactic acid and carbon-dioxide. Lactic acid is the component in milk, that creates the richness and body that coats your mouth…without it, odds are the milk would be very bitter and harsh. The malolactic fermentation process will lower the acidity slightly as well as produce a softer, richer texture that blankets the harshness of the remaining acids.

The 2012 vintage: The acidity levels were a bit lower throughout California because of the higher temps throughout the growing season. Now, this is true for the Sonoma Coast, but really since its so darn cold out there, it’s just LESS COLD, resulting higher acidity than seen inland. This lets the winemaker skip malolactic fermentation all together. The one downside to malolactic fermentation is that, although it does shield your palate from acidity, it also hides a bit of the natural flavor of the grapes. To winemakers inland, the acidity levels would appear quite high, despite being a warmer year. But in the case of the Sonoma Coast, the balance between acidity and the flavor is very level. The cooler temperatures do increase acidity, but also allow for a longer growing season, boosting POWERFUL flavor with absolute PURITY, without increasing sugars.


that’s why we’re here right?


It is important to remember that the cooler climates of coastal regions like the Extreme Sonoma Coast will naturally produce a higher level of acidity on avg, and wines specified as California AVA or Lodi AVA will have a lower natural acidity, and therefore the winemaker might have to add acids before fermentation to achieve balance in the wine. People who strive more a more natural style of winemaking often try to work with cooler climate whites as a result. Acidity in white wine is very important making sure the wine doesn’t die within a year or two as well.process.
Dry Whites: .65 – .75
Sweet Whites: .70 – .85

Acidity in reds is crucial to the mouthwatering fruit provided my most grapes. You will notice the acidity up-front and on the finish. You can literally feel your mouth water. Acidity provides a texture and richness to fruit that cannot be imitated, so managing acidity is crucial to the winemaker. If the acidity is too high, it will accentuate greener bitter notes, but if it too low, fruit will feel like syrup on your palate, rather than rounded and silky. Acidity also provides the structure for great red wines to last for decades. So when a winemaker talks about acidity in their wine, and how crucial it is to making their wine unique, often, that’s because he knows what he’s talking about. Often times when a winemaker making a real powerful Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel or Pinot Noir, winemakers will leave the grapes on the vine past maturity to boost flavor and sugar. Unfortunately, the grapes lose a lot of acidity during that process, so look for wines with moderate alcohol levels (13-14.5), and winemakers who have pride in using minimal intervention as a tactic, because they know the real power of acidity in red wines.
Dry Reds: .60 – .70
Sweet Reds: .65 – .80

These are some of the worlds best grape growing regions, specializing in their own styles of wine, with different varietals highlighting the power of their soils. Each region however, rely heavily on the natural acidity provided by their micro-climate. Without profound, mouthwatering acidity, these legendary areas would be selling exclusively bulk grape juice. From my own experiences with these wines, the balanced acidity, providing excellent structure for thir red and white wines alike, are what makes them incredible….it’s no different here.

The truth is, 90% of wines sold on store shelves in the US, are consumed within 6 HOURS of purchase. The focus of many wine companies, is to produce wines that are at their peak immediately upon sale. So, acidity is really not all that necessary. What they need to do as a company, is to make a LARGE amount of wine, with massive flavor. So they produce 20 tons per acre, of over-ripe grapes, rather than 4 tons per acre of perfectly ripe grapes. Winemakers under this system will have to add massive amounts of acids and nutrients just to make the wine suitable for fermentation, then additional acids to maintain it for a few months of barreling. The flavor is powerful, but they have to sacrifice structure, aging potential, and the quality of that powerful flavor. The result is DRINKABLE. If you want something FANTASTIC, its best not to look for wine in “Trader Whoever”, or other large supermarket chains…(Just so you know, about 90% of wine in “Trader Whoever” is all made at a single MEGA factory that looks a lot like an oil refinery, and the other large chains have a similar system so they can maximize profit as well.) Look instead for a winery that is not sold in stores. Look for a family run winery, with a well known winemaker, who makes wine there because they wanted to GET OUT of BIG CORPORATE WINEMAKING and make wine he/she is passionate about.



This is where things get interesting. When wine ratings come in for vintages through the major publications, the warmer longer years with little rain ALWAYS get better ratings in the big cabs, chards etc. But, if you have the patience, you can find better wines from the cooler vintages. Take 2008 for example in Napa. Napa was given a much lower rating for the 2008 vintage due to early rain and frost. Winegrowers lost massive amounts of crop, with a harvest just 66% of other years. Wineries too see this as a bad year, because, well…less profit and less interest from buyers due to lackluster ratings.

This is a wine lover’s wet dream.

Because vines producing smaller tonnage leads to intense fruit, pure flavors with perfectly integrated acidity. These wines will age for 5-10 YEARS LONGER than warmer years as well. (wine ratings by publications are typically done 3 years after harvest date, so wines of this power will not even be fully integrated yet, with powerful tannin still binding together)


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