A wine merchant of my acquaintance loves acidity in wine. German wine? Yes please, he says. And give me a sinewy 1993 white burgundy rather than one of those fat 1992s any day. Tingling reds from the Loire and Beaujolais? Just my cup of tea.
Alas that cup doth not run over. This wine merchant has extremely discerning tastes but a palate distinctly at odds with the mainstream wine market. He is currently floundering.
When he started out in wine 20 years ago, things were fine for him because both consumer tastes and the wines themselves were very different. Average acidity levels in wines such as red bordeaux and white burgundy were much higher and – a not unrelated fact, this – alcohol levels were much lower.
Why have wine drinkers suddenly become so wary of a component as refreshing as acidity? It cannot simply be that man instinctively and unthinkingly finds its opposite – sweetness, or ripeness – more attractive. If this were true, it should have been true 20 years ago.
Or is it just that wine drinkers of the world, who were once limited to a diet of wine made in relatively cool regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and Germany which naturally produced wines high in acidity, have now been exposed to stronger wines from much warmer climates such as those of California and Australia and their palates have been re-tuned?
I suspect this change in consumer taste has come about mainly because of our late 20th century desire for instant gratification. We have lost the habit of waiting for anything (I admit my own impatience when my pc takes all of a minute to re-boot). Rather than waiting for a wine to mature, we want it to be delicious from the moment it makes its first appearance outside the cellar – and in today's crazy futures market (especially for bordeaux) that means during the spring following the harvest.
This means that wines, even very fine wines, have to be made in more of a hurry than in the old days. They are put into oak as early as possible, increasingly before malolactic fermentation has even started, even though grapes are deliberately picked much, much later than they were.
In many ways this new precociousness is a good thing. It certainly makes tasting young wines much more fun, and it means that consumers no longer have to tie up vast amounts of capital in order to enjoy fine wine.
But there is a price to pay. The most obvious is the observed, although not widely reported, increase in the incidence of that nasty yeast strain Brettanomyces, or 'Brett' as it is chummily known in the US. Acidity is not just refreshing, it is great at warding off harmful bacteria and winemaking disaster. In fact the conditions that favour the development of the unpleasant mousey-smelling aromas associated with too much Brett (a little can be fine; a lot is offputting) are very ripe grapes, low acidity, concentrated musts and prolonged oak ageing – all of these typical characteristics of modern wine.
The other consequence of the marked reduction in modern wine's average acidity may well be that they do not age as well. In white wines it is perfectly clear that wines with a high level of acidity and extract will age much longer than those with lower acid and lots of alcohol. (I call as witness armies of Rieslings versus battalions of Chardonnays wherever they are made, including Burgundy.)
With red wines however it is still too early to tell whether the new, super-ripe style that is now so popular (the result, some French observers claim, of a 'banalisation of taste') will be capable of ageing anything like as long as the wines of yesteryear that were initially more austere. I could well be wrong but it instinctively seems unlikely that they will.
Many wine drinkers will think this is no big deal. Pull the cork and get it down you with as obvious a hit a possible. Seventeen per cent Zin? Lovely. Shiraz to light a bonfire with? Yessss! Who cares if draining the second glass is a bit of a hazy struggle?
But as one who has been lucky enough to taste the extraordinary subtlety and sheer gut-wrenching magnificence of great wine at 40, 50 or 60 years old, I see the acceleration of the ageing process in fine wine (it can certainly be very useful for everyday wine) as robbing it of one of its unique attributes.
You will have worked out by now that I am a fan of acidity in wine. I think that the average level of acidity worldwide has fallen to a dangerously low level, with far too many wines being simply big rather than appetising. And it is not just red wines which seem less crisp today: think of Alsace.
Not that I am advocating picking grapes so early that, while natural acidity may be high, there is hardly any fruit or flavour. I would just like to remind the wine drinkers of the world that 1) the best vintages are not necessarily those with the higest alcohol levels and 2) there is a host of wines made relatively far from the equator in places such as Germany and the Loire where acid levels are naturally high and there is not a thing wrong with that – so long as the wines are well-balanced. New Zealand wines somehow manage to appeal to modern palates while having relatively high natural acidity, perhaps because so many of the whites anyway have a bit of residual sugar while, unlike unfashionable German wines, being sold ostensibly as dry wines.
If I want a wine to drink, rather than taste and admire while being obliterated by it, then I want something that keeps teasing me, keeps my gastric juices flowing, something that is dry enough to taste great with food – and that inevitably means a liquid with appetising crispness rather then one with a heavy charge of alcohol.