“I don’t drink wines because they are too acidic…They give me heartburn”, said the man as he continued digging into chicken tikka masala while sipping on neat Single Malt Scotch – a pairing that could baffle scientists around the globe had the world been overly food centric. Thankfully it isn’t, but that still doesn’t make the above pairing acceptable, especially if one is abstaining from wines to evade acidity. It is no surprise that drinking alcohol before a meal rather than with it is still a common practice in our culture and I am starting to believe that building an appetite may have little to do with it instead of having to deal with unfortunate food-drink pairings.
When spicy food is paired with a high alcohol beverage such as Scotch, the alcohol in the drink will accentuate the perception of spice in the food making it taste, and feel spicier on the palate than it actually is. For someone claiming to keep away from wines to elude acidity, this pairing is sure to disappoint, but pair the tikka with an off-dry low acid Gewurztraminer-based wine from Alsace for example, and it would help take the edge off the spice in the tikka and contribute to a better dining experience. So also, Scotch can be paired with a number of dishes – my favorite is a crispy-nutty besan cake with a 12-year-old Highland Single Malt.
The point I am trying to make is that foods and drinks of all sorts have varied levels of acidity in them, yet for some reason, many associate wines with acidity as if it were the only culprit. Acidity in wines is often misconstrued as being something toxic or undesirable. On the contrary, acid is an essential element for a well structured wine or even food in general. Take the Goan ‘pez’ (a light, bland rice soup, similar to Chinese ‘konji’) for example, which is often savoured with a side of pickle. The pickle provides a much needed acid component that helps refresh the palate after each bite, preparing the diner for the next morsel. There are many such examples – ‘ambadyachi karam’ with curry-rice; tamarind in fish-based curries, lemon sorbet between multiple dinner courses and vinegar in several Goan dishes. All of these provide acid in the form of fresh and crisp, zesty and tangy flavors to elevate a dish from the monotonous one-dimensional flavour profiles.
Sensing acidity in wines couldn’t be simpler – take a sip of wine, swirl it in your mouth and swallow. Now wait for a few seconds. Does your mouth salivate? If yes, that is acid working its magic. For those of you who do not have wine handy, try recalling the time you bit into raw mangoes, aamla, tamarind, tomatoes or even oranges, lemon and limes. Right after the first bite, your tongue salivates – hence the expression, mouth watering. Now that is an acid reaction, and it is important because it helps cleanse the palate, or refresh it, in preparation for the next fresh bite. Different wines made from different grapes have varied levels of acidity just like the fruits and vegetables mentioned above. Try biting into the above fruits as a quick exercise and note down which fruit is more acidic. The more acidic a fruit is, the more your mouth will water and vice versa.
It is a common myth that all dry wines are acidic. Actually, the term dry has nothing to do with acid. Dry is a measure of sugar in a wine. A wine without any traces of perceptible sweetness on the palate is referred to as dry as opposed to sweet. Off-dry would be slightly sweet and so on. Riesling and Chenin Blanc grapes are a great example of sweet wines with high acidity. It may take a while before one realises that these are high acid grapes because of the sweetness, but if one were to look closely and follow the guidelines of acid-sensing, it is not hard to appreciate how beautifully balanced some of the best Rieslings or Chenins can be.
High acid wine is not necessarily a bad thing so long as the acid is in balance with fruit, tannins, body, and alcohol, which form the other structural elements in a wine. We will talk about these elements in future articles. As years pass, acid in a wine starts to deteriorate and mellow down. Hence it is important that a wine have high acid to begin with, so it may live for many years; otherwise, it will taste flat after a few years. Yes, every wine has a life term no matter what the seller tells you!
Some commonly found high acid white wine grapes include Albarino, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and Chenin Blanc. Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Sangiovese are some examples of high acid red wine grapes. Furthermore, grapes grown in cooler climates have higher acidity than the same grapes grown in warmer climates.
High acid wines pair well with a variety of foods, especially acidic foods, because the acid in the wine decreases the perception of acid in the food making it more appetizing. Acidic wines also pair well with fatty/oily foods because they help cut through some of the richness in fatty foods. For example, a Portuguese Vino Verde wine, which is made from Alvarinho (or Albarino in Spain) grapes is great with fried Goan prawns. The acid in the wine cuts through the oil in the fried prawns while refreshing the palate with each bite. Sangiovese wine with tomato-based pasta is another example but works a little differently. Here, the acid in the tomato compliments the acid in the grape to make a harmonious dining experience.
So the next time you are at a restaurant, test your knowledge of acids in wines by pairing different types of foods with wines of varied acid levels and see how different grape varietal characters work with different foods. The more you train your palate to understand the structural components of wines, the more you will enjoy and start loving food and wine culture. I am sure it won’t be long before we see people drinking wine, Scotch and other liquors with food as opposed to before a meal because now you will have something to look forward to – an enjoyable food-drink pairing.