Wine and Volatile Acidity – What’s it All About?

Read anything about Italian wine and you’re sure to come across the concept of acidity. Many a review will mention the wine’s acidity, referring to it as a good or bad thing depending on the wine.

That can make the whole topic of acidity in wine confusing.

So, when you come across a term like volatile acidity, you may start to feel even more perplexed, You’re just getting to grips with this whole acidity thing. Why do people have to start throwing other words into the mix?

The good news is that your Xtrawine team is here to help you decode the wine industry jargon. In this article, we dig into what volatile acidity is.

Why is Acidity Important in Wine?

We need to understand the role that acids play in Italian wine before we get into what volatile acidity is.

Every wine contains acids. They’re a part of the wine-making process and they contribute to the feel, taste, and texture of the wine. Achieving the perfect balance between acidity and the rest of a wine’s qualities is crucial for a producer to create a great wine.

A wine with high acidity tends to taste more tart on the palate. It’s also crisper, with a more refreshing taste. That’s ideal for white wines, which are designed to refresh and tend to have citrus notes that complement high acidity perfectly. But for many red wines, high acidity takes away from the experience.

Wines that have low acid content tend to have a smoother and more rounded taste on the palate. You will often have more complex mixtures of notes because the acid doesn’t contribute to making one note more dominant than the others. This is perfect for red wines, which are often intended to be smooth and complex. But for white wine, low acidity takes away from the body and leaves you with a wine that is not as refreshing or crisp as you want it to be.

Acid also plays a part in the ageing process.

If a red wine has a high acid content, it likely gets better with age. In fact, some producers purposely create red wines with high acid content because they intend for them to go through an ageing process. The acid makes this process more stable, leading to more consistent quality once the win reaches a certain age.

On the flip side, wines with high acidity tend to need more preservatives, such as sulphites, to guard against oxidation. So, if you’re concerned about your wine containing unnatural materials, you might want to look into its acidity to see if there’s a likelihood of sulphites in the drink.

What is Volatile Acidity?

Now that you know the basics of how acids affect your Italian wines, let’s dig into a term that causes a lot of confusion.

Volatile acidity refers to the amount of volatile acids in the wine. But what does “volatile” mean? In wine, it refers to gaseous acids that alter the taste of the wine. The main volatile acid in winemaking is acetic acid, which some may recognise as being the acid that’s most closely associated with the taste and smell of vinegar.

But acetic acid is not the only volatile acid that may be found in wine. Many also contain ethyl acetate, which carries the smell and taste of nail polish.

Let’s face it – neither of those tastes is what you want to experience when you drink a glass of wine.

And yet, many wines contain both types of acid. And therein lies the problem. Volatile acids exist because it’s almost impossible to get rid of the bacteria that produce them. Even something as simple as a scratch in a wine cask can harbour the bacteria that create acetic acid. You simply can’t have 100% perfect producing conditions, meaning volatile acids are an ever-existing problem in the wine industry.

What Effect do Volatile Acids Have in Wine?

You’ve probably already figured out part of the answer to this question from the mention of vinegar and nail polish. And if you’ve ever opened a bottle of wine and then waited a little too long to drink it, you’ve seen volatile acids in action.

Let’s say you’ve cracked open a bottle of white wine with a friend. Each of you has a glass but your friend is called away unexpectedly. You don’t want to drink the rest of the bottle yourself so you pop it into the fridge.

Then, you forget about it.

A couple of weeks later, you see the bottle and remember that you opened it a while ago. So, you pour yourself a glass to try and get the most out of the bottle before you throw it away. But it’s already too late. The wine reeks of vinegar and is unpleasant to the taste.

Down the sink it goes.

But volatile acids aren’t just something that become more prominent with ageing. They’re part and parcel of the wine production process. You can’t create a wine without there being some involvement from these types of acids.

As such, taming and controlling volatile acids is key to wine production.

If a producer gets the balance wrong, they end up with a batch of wine that simply isn’t suitable for sale. All of that time and money that went into cultivating the grapes goes to waste as the producer has to dispose of the wine.

But if they get the balance right, the volatile acids in wine can actually add another layer to the flavour. Even so, producers have to take special care of their equipment while tracking production to ensure levels stay such that the wine can be enjoyed properly by consumers.

The Final Word

The term “volatile” is rarely used in a positive context. And that’s much the case here. When you hear somebody say volatile acids, you can pretty safely assume that they’re referring to the acids in wine that can lead to unpleasant flavours.

Thankfully, most producers have a handle on volatile acids. And proper storage techniques, plus the use of clever tools like vacuum pumps, can slow down the development of these acids. You can find those tools, and the wines you’ll use them on, in the Xtrawine store.


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