It’s helpful to consider these two characteristics together, rather than as separate entities to be measured on the Low-High scale. But let’s have a look at these things separately first:
Acidity – Most people equate acidity with the taste of sourness, and not without reason. However when it comes to wine we consider the textural component.
Put simply, acidity is the component of wine that gives it it’s sense of freshness, liveliness and vibrancy. A wine that lacks acidity will seem watery, flat and bland.
The easiest way to test a wines acidity it to have a taste of it, spit/swallow, then let your tongue “hang” just below the roof of your mouth. You will feel your tongue begin to produce saliva. The faster and more saliva being produced, the higher the acidity.
Tannin – This is primarily important in red wines, although once you become sensitive to the textures in red wines you may carry on this practical knowledge into white wines, where it may sometimes be translated into “minerality”.
This is one of the easiest components to sense – tannin gives you a sense of dryness on the palate, causing your gums, lips and tongue to pucker up and tighten.
Now let’s have a look at these factors together:
Biologically speaking, there is an inverse relationship between acidity and tannin as grapes ripen. The more ripe the fruit gets, the higher the tannin and the lower the acidity, and vice versa.
Winemakers face a constant dilemma on the field. They would want to retain enough acidity to ensure the wine keeps its sense of freshness, but enough tannin to balance the textural experience.
When you consider the relationship between the two as the fruit ripens before it is turned into wine, this takes on a new significance, and any unnatural deviation (added acid or tannin during winemaking) can be more easily perceived.
Acidity and tannin shouldn’t just be judged on a High-Low scale. Rather, there are finer details that can be worked in that can help you to more accurately express the quality of a wine.
This will initially be easier to do with tannin – are they grainy, chalky or sandy? Notice how these deal with the perceived “size” of tannins. Sometimes they might even be “silky”, “velvety” or “chocolate-y”, because they seem so fine that you need to add an extra textural dimension.
Now you can extend this into acidity. Zingy, zesty, pettilant, steely… these and more are descriptors used to describe the sensation that the acid component in a wine has on the palate.
Acid and tannin are the two most important components in a wine that allow it to age. Often, a wine that seems too tannic and acidic in it’s youth will age gracefully and become much more approachable after a few years, or even decades.
After many years, the acidity in a wine will soften and become less sharp on the palate. The tannin in a red wine will clump together and produce sediment, which means the wine will need to be decanted before serving. Because of this clumping, some of the colour will have “dropped out” of the wine, and it may appear to be lighter compared to it’s youthful version.
The above is far from an exhaustive analysis of acidity and tannin, but I hope I’ve been able to illustrate how these two factors are intimately linked. While we can do our best to separate them on a ranking scale, by considering them together during a tasting you may gain a greater understanding than when judged separately.
Read more: Essential #7 – Wine Classes