July 2008

Dropping Acid

By: Anthony Dias Blue

What is going on with California winemakers? Were they traumatized as children while manning a lemonade stand? Did they overdose on sour balls? In their late teens did they chug a glass of vinegar thinking it was vodka?

Why are they so afraid of acid??

I taste a lot of wines—about six-thousand each year, more than half of them from California—and I can’t tell you how many are dull, flat, flabby and lifeless.

Chardonnay is America’s most popular grape variety. As a result, almost every winery feels it is its solemn duty to add at least one more bottle of clear juice to the supermarket shelf. An embarrassingly large number of these Chardonnays are as described above: Pour them into a glass and they just lie there, showing all the liveliness of a stagnant swamp.

Are students in the enology departments of our esteemed universities taught that acidity is bad? It would seem so, since most of them seem to eagerly subject their just-made Chardonnay to a full malolactic fermentation. This secondary bacterial fermentation converts the fresh, juicy malic acid (the stuff found in apples) to lactic acid (the stuff found in milk). In layman’s terms, it basically “dumbs down” the wine. The bright, crisp green apple turns to mush. “It adds complexity,” they explain. Well, isn’t that special.

I guess that these winemaking geniuses haven’t notice that three or four years after bottling the big, fat, dull Chardonnays have self-destructed. Two years ago I took part in the re-staging of the 1976 Paris tasting. We tasted the original wines, and it was a revelation. The 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that had won the tasting was, thirty years later, bright and vibrant with very little evidence of the length of its journey. It is a wine Mike Grgich never put through any malolactic fermentation. In addition to giving the wine excellent structure, the malic acid had acted as a preservative.

I would suggest that these winemaking hotshots taste a few white Burgundies. Yes, people, that’s the same grape variety. Surprising, isn’t it?
I might never have brought this up, because I don’t drink that many domestic Chardonnays, but what has snapped me to attention is that I am starting to see the same drift toward blandness in Pinot Noirs.

Pinot, the red companion to Chardonnay in Burgundy, is the most charming and sensual of wines. It is feminine, complex and expressive of fruit and earth, and one of its most appealing characteristics is racy acidity—a firmness and edge that propels the wine to grace, finesse and balance. As a result, it is a superb food wine.

Now, since it is a hot variety, lots of wineries are making Pinot. Some of it is very good, but some of it isn’t. More and more Pinot Noir bottlings capture the cherry fruit, the earth, the spice . . . but they stop there. All of this flavor is left to languish with no bright acidity to lift it to greatness. Dull, flat Pinot Noirs are a shame.

This kind of drabness can show up in other varietal wines as well: Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc even Riesling. Nothing is immune.

So here’s my advice to winemakers: If the end result of your efforts turns out dull and flabby, ACIDULATE. Adding acidity to wine is completely legal in the U.S. Don’t look upon it as an admission of defeat; regard it as a way of making your wine better.

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