‘Lemony’, ‘citrussy’, ‘refreshing’, ‘clean’: you often see these words in descriptions of wine. What they’re really saying is that the wine has plenty of acidity, but in a good way. And, so long as the acidity doesn’t dominate and is in balance with the rest of the flavours, I’d generally agree that some acidity in a wine is a positive. It can make the wine more refreshing and attractive on the palate and it can also help make it more food-friendly by cutting through any richness or greasiness in a dish. But a few people – including a very good friend of ours – are particularly sensitive to acidity and my ‘lemony-freshness’ becomes their ‘tart and shudderingly unpleasant’. As a result, they need to choose their wine very carefully.
Wines made from certain grapes tend to be naturally more acidic than others: famous varieties Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon all fall into this category. So, despite their attractions for the rest of us, acidity-haters should concentrate their attention elsewhere. But it’s not just the grape variety that’s important: as grapes ripen, the level of sugar in them increases but the level of acidity decreases, so wines from warmer regions of the world, where the grapes are likely to be riper, will, in general, be less acidic than those from cooler climates. Those are two useful factors to bear in mind but, as with much in the wine world, things are not as simple as that: some producers actually add acidity during the winemaking process – it’s quite legal and they would argue that they’re just compensating for what would otherwise be an unbalanced wine.
So, where should those who dislike acidity look? The pictures above suggest a few good places to start: for white wines, Gewurztraminer, Viognier and Semillon are all varieties that are naturally quite low in acidity while, for reds, Tempranillo – the main Rioja grape – or Grenache – a key player in many Côtes du Rhônes, are the same. And, watch out for wines made by less interventionist winemakers, as they are less likely to have acidity added.
But, most of all, taste widely and, if you find wines that suit your palate, stick with them.
Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.
Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.
Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.
The most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.