Friday, January 11, 2008

Wine or soap?

My previous blog entry about dry/sweet got me some nice email (which leaves me to wonder why so many don’t comment on the blog instead).

Oddly, a related subject popped up on the Squires/Parker wine forum recently, and it’s one of those pleasant times when a discussion is actually taking place, rather than a free-for-all.

The subject was brought about by a question concerning acidity in wine. But since pH and acidity are closely related, you can’t have a one-sided discussion on the issue.

I’ve talked about how acidity is, to me, the backbone of wine. It’s what makes my palate respond happily. Acidity also seems to highlight the fruity and mineral qualities that we often get from wines. It is the thing that helps me match food with wine.

pH is a measure of acidity/alkalinity. On the scale that measures pH, a 7 is considered neutral (that would be plain water at 25 degrees Celsius). Anything above 7 is alkaline; anything below 7 is acidic. Generally, a high acid wine delivers low pH.

The optimum wine pH is in the range 3.2 to 3.8. As pH rises, wine loses its backbone and snap. Above 3.8, it begins to lose its microbial stability and probably its aging longevity, too.

You know that malo-lactic fermentation you hear so much about—just about every red wine goes through it, and only a few whites. Malo-lactic fermentation takes one of wine’s acids—malic—and converts it to the softer lactic acid of dairy products. You want to do that to red wines because their tannic acid structure makes it possible to soften the total acidity yet keep a backbone albeit, a backbone with a different focus.

Because they are not fermented on the skins, white wines are lower in tannic acids, so a malo-lactic fermentation on them can remove their backbone—think creamy, fatty, buttery Chardonnay. (I only think it—I never drink it.)

Not only is a tart acid reduced during malo-latic fermentation, the pH is increased, and that contributes to the softening mouth feel of the wine. In some finished red wines, the pH is allowed to get so high that on my palate they come off as soapy, almost peroxide like (soap is an alkaline with a high pH).

I bring all this up only to say that, for me, pairing wine with food is a joy in contrasts: the acidity of wine cutting through the fats of foods, or the fruitiness of wine, matching with spices in food. In that regard, high pH can make wine and food pairing a lot more challenging than wines of high acidity and low pH.

The fact that high pH makes wine unstable and likely shorter lived isn’t much of a selling point, either.

One more thing: winemakers can mess around and create wines with low acid and low pH; it has to do with adding buffer chemicals, but I am ill-equipped as well as disinclined to go into that subject.

Wines For This Entry:

Colli Orientali del Friuli may sound like something from the Italian part of Asia, but it isn’t. “Orientali” refers to the east of Northern Italian hillsides, “Colli.” “Friuli” refers to the region.

Friuli-Venezia-Giulia is the region’s proper name, and I do love this place, for its wines, its locale along the border with Slovenia, and for its low American tourist count—that the great city of Trieste is in the region is a major plus.

Here, wines are generally referred on the labels as varietals with place names secondary. In a mix of Italian, French, and even a few American grapes, they grow a number of different grape varieties, one of them is Cabernet Franc.

Petrucco is a family winery outside the region’s capital city, Udine. Its 2004 Cabernet Franc is a perfect example of that region’s style for this variety.

On first sniff, came a green pepper aroma, but after a few minutes in the glass, the wine smelled like a blend of black pepper and Pertussin (sp) cough syrup, which I happen to like, the smell not the syrup. It’s a dark cherry/coal tar aroma.

The taste delivered an earthy density and also a cough syrup quality. In the end, however, during the 15-second finish, I distinctly got the tannins—chocolate and cherry pits. The alcohol, at 13%, was in complete balance. I loved the wine.

I was not in a cooking mood, so I mixed some ground bison meat with plain breadcrumbs, soy sauce, crushed garlic and crushed white pepper and made some burgers. I topped the burgers with grilled shitake mushrooms and sweet onions. It all went well with the wine.

Petrucco 2004 Cabernet Franc
Colli Orientali del Friuli

Imported by USA Imports, New York—$17.50/bottle before volume discount.

The next wine is the first of 2008 that I did not like. It was from the Cotes de Thongue in France’s vast Languedoc wine region.

In fairness to this particular wine, I have yet to like the style of the wines I have tasted from this region. Here’s what I got.

A fairly advanced oxidized nose with a touch of a smell I can only describe as the Live Saver candy. On the palate, the wine started with a decent, tingly mouth feel, even a touch of fruit, but the oxidation took over and the fruit tasted like it had been dried to petrified. To top it off, this chilled white wine was hot: 14 % alcohol.

My wife didn’t know any better; she picked out a white wine from the south of France produced from grapes that were harvested in one of the hottest vintages on record.

I tried to pair this wine with buttermilk marinated chicken breast dipped in egg, wrapped in sage, and breaded, then sautéed in garlic infused olive oil, and served with thin-sliced Portuguese-style fried potatoes. The wine nearly ruined the food.

Magellan 2003 Ponant
Cotes de Thongue

Imported by DS Trading Company, Virginia Beach—$11.00/bottle before volume discount.

Acid/pH Discussion

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
January, 2008. All rights reserved.


  1. Hi Thomas !
    This is a PM instead of something to post....I don't seem to have your non-eBob email address? I was dumbfounded to learn that Jeff Leve became a "moderator" on eBob. Perhaps its old news, but it simply reinforces my suspicions about several "gaming" the system over there. My latest laugh there are those solemnly affirming that very few winemakers tailor their wines to suit particular palates. In that post someone used the quip "RMPoints". Have a great weekend ! M.

  2. Yeah, well, I've imposed a self ban.

    No more time for nonsense.