“Buy on an apple, sell on a piece of cheese,” runs an old wine trade saw. It’s good advice for consumers, too. If a wine, especially a red wine, can survive the tart, hard-skinned assault of a slice of Granny Smith, then it must be special. The opposite is true of a chunk of cheddar, which can embellish even the plainest glass of plonk, softening its hard edges with a creamy coating.
Sourness in wine can be painful, even without an apple. I’ve often imagined the sadistic Nazi dentist played by Sir Laurence Olivier in the film Marathon Man administering a splash of super-tart grape varieties like gros plant or aligoté to Dustin Hoffman’s cavities instead of using a probe. I’d confess to almost anything if you threatened to pour a raw white onto my gums. I’d even admit to enjoying pinot grigio.
It’s important not to confuse sourness with acidity, however. The two are related — the former is the result of green, unripe grapes — but they are very different in taste. The latter is a vital component in good wine, giving it freshness, vivacity and longevity. Without it, wine generally tastes flat and heavy-limbed.
And yet acidity is a term that dare not speak its name, at least in public. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the words used to describe wine on back labels. It’s a case of two parts alliteration to one part lingerie ad: silky, smooth, supple. And acidity? “A total no no,” says a copywriter friend. “You might talk about a wine being mouth-watering, refreshing or citrus-flavoured, but never acidic. It puts people off.”
Maybe it does, but I’d like to speak up for acidity, because the older I get, the more I appreciate it. And not because I’m turning sour myself. As the Italians know only too well, harmonious, refreshing wines work much better with food than soft, jammy ones, which are practically a meal in themselves.
Intuitively at least, most people accept that white wines need acidity. Imagine sauvignon blanc, semillon, albariño, riesling or chenin blanc without it. But they are less keen on acidity in their reds. This wasn’t always the case. Over the last twenty years there has been a marked trend towards bigger, bolder, later-picked styles in which the harmony that acidity brings is sacrificed for extra ripeness. Alcohol levels have soared as acidity levels have fallen. Freshness is dismissed as greenness.
If the winemakers in question didn’t add acidity from a packet after the grapes have been picked their reds would be almost undrinkably soupy and dull. This is often the case with commercial, warm climate New World styles and more often than not the result is still clumsy and poorly proportioned.
Balanced wines with natural acidity nearly always taste better to me. That’s why I prefer to drink New World reds from cooler climates, where there is no need to adjust the wine, or classic European styles. But don’t take my word for it. Try any of these six reds — three each from the northern and southern hemispheres — and taste what acidity brings to the party. They might not be improved by an apple, but I guarantee they’ll taste even better with cheese.
2009 Château de Lacarelle, Beaujolais Villages (£6.95, 13%, The Wine Society)
Crunchy, refreshing gamay from the best Beaujolais vintage in decades. Sweet cherry and raspberry fruit flavours are balanced by a hint of plumskin bitterness.
2008 Ascencion Malbec, Salta (£7.99, 14.5%, Laithwaites)
The alcohol level may suggest otherwise, but this high altitude Argentinean red is still remarkably fresh, with notes of violets and black pepper and complex, savoury fruit.
2008 Mayu Selected Vineyards Syrah, Elqui Valley (£8.99, 14%, Waitrose)
Chile’s coastal Elqui Valley is producing some of my favourite New World reds at the moment. This is like a mini Hermitage: spicy and bright with a smoky undertone.
2001 Château Ramafort, Cru Bourgeois, Médoc (£8.99 each for two, 13%, Majestic)
An equal blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot from an under-rated vintage. Drinking really well now, with well-balanced acidity, mature fruit and tannins.
2008 Selfridges Selection Chianti, Salcheto (£11.99, 13.5%, Selfridges)
One of a series of impressive wines sold under Selfridges’ own label, this all sangiovese Chianti is complex and traditional with notes of leather and fresh tea.
2008 Waipara Hills Central Otago Pinot Noir (£12.99, 14%, selected Sainsbury’s stores)
Sourced from the Bendigo sub-region of Central Otago, this is a brilliant Kiwi pinot at the price: supple and elegant, with notes of strawberry, mint and vanilla.
Originally published in The Times