Bright, refreshing, tart and crisp are terms used to describe acidity. These are most commonly used as descriptors for white wine although red wine also contains acidity. Yes, even big bold Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel does, as acidity affects taste, mouth-feel and the longevity of both red and white wine.
It is easy to describe how one determines a wine’s acidity and the effect it has on the palate. Simply imagine the taste of sucking on a lemon and what happens? Your mouth waters and puckers. Well that's acidity and the more acidic the wine, the more the pronounced the effects. Sweetness is sometimes used to balance or decrease the perception of acidity and achieve a better balanced wine, which is often the case for German Riesling.
There are two ways to measure a wine’s acidity. The first is a measure of the acid present in the wine while the other, the PH, measures the strength of these acids. Although there are other acids present in wine, malic, lactic and citric acids are the most common. Malic is a harsh acid, which is desirable in some wines, but not all. A winemaking method called malolactic fermentation is employed to convert malic acid into lactic acid, a softer, smoother acid with buttery qualities. Many buttery, soft Australian and Californian Chardonnay reveals the effect of this wine-making technique.
The red wines Chianti, Barolo, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and also Pinot Noir – depending on where its grown – are high-acid red wines. All grapes, red and white, grown in cool climates are significantly higher in acid than grapes grown in warmer climates where grapes fully ripen because acidity levels decrease while sweetness increases during ripening.
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Champagne, German Riesling, Provencial roséand Pinot Grigio are all high-acid white wines. Generally, European wine, red and white, are higher in acid and more food friendly than those made outside of Europe. That said, European wine is increasingly being tailored to New World (North American) palates which translates to more full-bodied wines with higher alcohol and ripe fruit.
Acid likes acid. Acidic wine pairs extremely well with acidic food. Examples of high acid foods are olives, pickled food, vinaigrette dressings, vinegar (white and balsamic), mustard, salsa and sauerkraut. Acidity should not dominate each bite of food or sip of wine but showcase the complexity and flavors of both the wine and food. Acidic wines also enhance rich and fatty food, such as a creamy, white pasta sauce, as acidity cuts through the richness of the dish while also refreshing the palate. Acidity also influences earthy, meaty flavors common to food.
Spicy and hot dishes are complimented by acidic wines, as are Thai and Chinese foods. My preference is to serve a slightly sweet Riesling or an off-dry Alsatian Gewurztraminer, which not only enhances the food with its fruity and floral tones but also tempers heat.
Balance is key and, thankfully, simpler to achieve with wine and food than politics.