In the world of wine, preferences are as diverse as the wines themselves. One topic that sparks a fiery debate among natural wine aficionados is the presence of volatile acidity (VA).
In general, VA is considered one of the “swear words” of wine. But it’s more of a worry for winemakers than it is for consumers. Some choose to embrace it as a defining feature of their beloved natural wines, while others shy away from its tangy allure.
Here, we’ll delve a bit deeper into the volatile acidity discussion within the natural wine community, shedding light on why opinions vary, and uncover whether there are any stylistic benefits to high volatile acidity in natural wines.
Understanding Volatile Acidity in Natural WineVolatile acidity refers to the presence of volatile organic acids, primarily acetic acid, in wine. While not solely responsible, most VA is produced by bacteria called Acetic Acid bacteria, the same bacteria that they use to produce vinegar. Unsurprisingly, the acids they produce can impart a vinegary, sharp, or sour aroma and taste – a gorgeous Italian balsamic at the right level. In moderation, VA can elevate a wine’s complexity, contributing to its overall bouquet and flavour profile. However, when it becomes overpowering, it risks unbalancing the wine, turning it into an acquired taste that only the most committed natural wine lovers can appreciate. What one needs to take note of is that all wine has a level of VA. “Just as all wines have acidity – it is a fundamental component – all wines have some VA” says Jamie Good in his book Flawless. What a wino means when they say “a wine has VA” is that the VA is over a certain threshold, making it noticeable. In conventional wines, this threshold is 1 to 1.2 grams per litre. Below this is the most “acceptable” by traditional standards, and is usually not noticeable to the naked nozzle. Above this, and you start to run into trouble if you encounter an intransigent wine critic.
Why Some Natural Wine Drinkers Embrace ItComplexity Enhancement In small doses, VA adds an intriguing layer of complexity to the aroma and taste of natural wines, elevating their uniqueness and appeal. The truth is, depending on the cultivar, the average consumer’s palate will not notice the presence of VA, even at levels of between 1.2-1.5 g/L. In fact, more often than not, they’ll enjoy the subtle tang that follows the sip of wine behind the tonsils. Varietal and Regional Influence In certain wine regions and with specific grape varieties, a touch of VA can be considered part of the regional or varietal character.
The terroir, climate, and winemaking traditions of specific regions can also influence how VA is perceived and embraced in wine. Some wine regions have a long history of crafting wines with a touch of VA as part of their unique identity. For example in Piedmont, Italy, wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, made from the Nebbiolo grape, are known for their complexity, including the presence of VA. Traditional winemaking techniques such as long aging periods in large oak casks can encourage the development of VA as part of the wine’s character.
Many natural wine producers, like us, prioritize minimal intervention and embrace the raw, unfiltered nature of their creations. (Un)fortunately, one of the consequences is not only a slightly wilder bacterial population, but also the lack of correctives. For example, in our winery, our grapes naturally have a higher pH, and we don’t use additives to bring it down, which means a higher chance of VA. It can bring character to the wine, and a touch of VA is considered part of the wine’s authenticity.
Natural Wine Movement
Natural winemaking involves fermenting wines using wild yeast populations, and are considered problematic when it comes to VA because there’s more chance the fermentation will get stuck (spontaneously stop). A stuck fermentation means a higher chance of VA.
Devotees of natural wine often appreciate its experimental and unconventional character. For them, VA can be a distinctive feature, a natural fingerprint of the winemaking process. While some fans certainly push their boundaries, their appreciation of wine for its diversity – veering away from traditional standards – is what makes the natural wine community so innovative and exciting.
“A lifted nose is one where a little bit of VA is present, and it’s sometimes found in red wines that have been barrel aged for a long time” – Jamie Goode, Flawless.
Why Some Wine Drinkers Dislike It
- Overpowering Nature: Excessive volatile acidity can dominate the palate, masking other desirable flavours and disrupting the wine’s balance, often viewed as a flaw.
- 2. Risk of Spoilage: High VA levels may indicate issues with winemaking hygiene or fermentation, leading to concerns about wine quality and longevity.
- Preferential Taste: Natural wine lovers are a diverse group, and personal preferences vary. Some simply don’t appreciate the pronounced sour notes that VA can introduce. This is also true of wine drinkers trained in the more conventional style of winemaking.
The constant debate surrounding volatile acidity highlights that in wine, a fault in one context can be a cherished attribute in another. For some, VA is too far past the unyielding traditions of classic wine. For others, it isn’t just tolerated, but celebrated – a hallmark of natural wine’s raw, untamed expression of terroir and philosophy.
Keen to learn more about VA and other wine faults? Get Jamie Goode’s book Flawless here.
Jamie Goode, PhD, is a multi-award-winning wine writer based on London, and author of one of the world’s leading wine websites Wineanorak.com.