Low acids, vintage and terroir

acidLet me be a little geekish about acidity in wine – specifically in wines of the troubled 2016 vintage. Even in Elgin, comparatively unscathed by the heat and drought that have posed questions to many dryland farmers ranging from philosophical ones to choices affecting sheer survivability – even in Elgin, acid levels this year have been nothing to take for granted. The latest newsletter from Iona (a model of thoughtfulness, interest and information, that I wish more producers would emulate instead of listing the points scored by the wines and suchlike dullnesses) speaks of “very varied levels of acidity”.

In many of the warmer and drier parts of the winelands, one hears winemakers lamenting the low levels of acid in their wines this year. But why lament? What’s the problem? It’s entirely legal in South Africa to upwardly adjust acid levels, and most winemakers do so as a matter of course every year, including for some pretty grand wines. More will undoubtedly have done so this year, and levels of adjustment will have risen too. It’s been a great year for those selling bags of tartaric acid.

Acidification is something that can be done well or badly, and many scientists and critics, as well as winemakers, insist that, if it is well and not too excessively done, it has no detectable adverse effects.

Perhaps. But there are, thankfully I’d say, those who are attempting, for reasons of integrity as well as quality, to keep their interventions to a minimum, and who frown on all additives. Any wine, for example, that is allowed to bear the label of the Swartland Independent Producers organisation may not be acidified. What are these non-interventionist winemakers doing as they see the harmony (probably) and the longevity (almost certainly) – of their serious, ambitious wines threatened by low levels of acidity?

There are various possibilities. One is to accept what the vintage gives them and make the best of it. Another is to grit one’s teeth and acidify, for the sake of making a better wine, even at the cost of straying from one’s principles. (And then either admit the addition or … not.) There’s another solution, and I was surprised to hear it offered quite matter-of-factly by a notably natural-wine-oriented winemaker I spoke to recently. What he’ll probably do, he says, is in the 2017 vintage pick some grapes from the same vineyard very early so that their acidity is high and add the carefully prepared wine to the 2016 to give it the balance and stuffing it needs, thus avoiding the use of unnatural additives.

This procedure is, let me hasten to add, entirely legal, as long as the finished wine contains at least 85% wine coming from the certified vintage date that it bears. And it’s a procedure that is, in fact, often used for various reasons. But I was, I confess, disconcerted to hear it coming from this man. Firstly, generally – in my abstract, puritan way I really disapprove of this 85% rule, which also applies to variety (you’re allowed to include, without mentioning it, up to 15% of a variety that is different from the one declared on the label). I think that it is dishonest and misleading.

Connected with this, I conceive of vintage as being part of terroir: all the stuff that is given by nature (and to an extent by culture) to the winemaker to do the best with that he or she can. So that a season’s weather is part of climate and in the same category as soil and aspect, and should be respected. The point is not (by this reckoning) to make the absolute “best” wine you can, but to make the best wine you can that is honestly expressive of terroir (including vintage). A vintage will have a personality just as a vineyard does, and the point is to express both as well as possible.

I think that this is what I think! But I know that not everyone I respect agrees with me, which gives me some pause. For example, I asked Chris Mullineux for his opinion. Actually I contacted him primarily to find out if Swartland Independent Producers, with its growing body of comparatively strict rules and guidelines for its members, has discussed the 85% rule. I was pleased to hear that they have discussed it with regard to varieties – and do intend to require 100% conformity with what’s declared on the label. Great.

But SIP hasn’t at all considered the 85% rule with regard to vintage, and Chris doesn’t think that it needs to. He argues cogently that the point of the SIP regulations is to help the expression of Swartland terroir in wines, and he doesn’t agree with my suggestion that vintage is, effectively, part of terroir.

Chris is also less severe than I am (and of course as a critic rather than a producer it’s easier to be severe) with regard to wine-manipulation. He thinks that sometimes a wine will demand the addition of some additives (like acid – he certainly is not wanting to start throwing in enzymes and the like) or processes (like filtration) in order to make it a better wine. Of course, such a wine would not be eligible to carry the SIP sticker, Chris points out. The SIP regulations are for him an “ideal”, not an article of faith.

I suspect that not all his Swartland colleagues would agree with this approach, and would apply their principles even at the cost of a less satisfactory wine, but maybe I’m wrong. I will take up the matter further, because it interests me, and will report back.

There are, no doubt, many non-interventionist winemakers having uneasy slumbers this year, as their low-acid wines rest shamefacedly in the cellar. For some, the solution will not be easy. But, hey, nor is life.

2 thoughts on “Low acids, vintage and terroir

  1. Speaking as a wine drinker I would prefer to get the best wine from a vintage/producer/region. If that means adding 5% clairette to a wine declared as chenin blanc or adding 10% 2017 syrah to a 2016 syrah? I am 100% fine with that.

    Speaking as a salesman, only 1% of the customers will know what kind of conditions there were in the 2016 vintage in SA. So please get the best out of this year!

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