Guide to Wine Acidity & How It Affects Your Tasting Experience

Wine acidity must be perfectly balanced in order to taste right and pair well with certain foods. Learn more about how this works.

Published January 9, 2023
Pouring Wine in Glass

You know drinks like lemonade are acidic - you can taste it. And while wine isn't as acidic as lemonade, there's acid in wine that's a key component in its balance. Acidity is an essential part of a wine's overall profile. But what type of acidity does wine contain and how does it affect the flavors? This varies from wine to wine and palate to palate, but a few wine acidity charts can help you understand how acidity affects wines.

Understanding Acidity In Wine

Acid is one of a few important components in wine, along with tannins, volatile compounds, sugars, and alcohol. Depending on the grape, terroir, and winemaking style, a wine can have pronounced or subtle acidity. In order for a wine to taste balanced, the acidity must be in harmony with the rest of the components. Too much and it will be an acid bomb in all the wrong ways; too little and it will fall flat and flabby.

Beyond the importance of acidity in terms of taste, it's an important natural preservative for wine. If a wine has high acidity with low pH, there's less of a need to add additional sulfites at bottling to keep the wine shelf stable.

How Acidity Tastes

Not sure if what you're tasting in your wine is acidity? Most people can recognize acidity as a mouthwatering sensation on the sides of your tongue. Acid is tart and usually makes you pucker a little. Think of biting into a lemon wedge, for example. That puckery feeling and watering mouth comes from the acid in the lemon. While a wine won't be nearly as puckery as a lemon, you'll still get the mouthwatering sensation and sour taste on the sides of your tongue in a wine with decent acidity.

Chart for Different Acids in Wine & How They Taste

So, when we talk about acid in wine, is it the same type of acid you taste from a freshly squeezed lemon? Kinda. The primary acid in citrus fruit is citric acid. Grapes have a few main types of acid - tartaric, malic, lactic, and citric. In wine, tartaric acid is the most prominent, but a wine's total acidity is a sum of all types combined.

The various acids express in different ways: tartaric is hard, malic is green (think unripe fruit or a Granny Smith apple), lactic is a bit softer but with a punchy sourness, and citric is bright and puckering like lemon juice. These acids must come together just so with other aspects of the wine to make it balanced.

Acid Taste
Tartaric acid Tart, hard
Malic acid Green, like unripe fruit
Lactic acid Soft, sour
Citric acid Bright, puckering

How to Taste Acidity in Wine

Now that you know what acids you're looking for, here's how to identify them on your palate. A high-acid wine vibes all bright and crisp with tart expressions of the fruit notes. Acidity typically comes through the most on the sides of the tongue, causing a taut, tingling sensation, triggering you to salivate and reach for another sip. The higher the acidity, the longer and more your mouth will water.

Need to Know

Find it difficult to differentiate between acids and tannins in your wine?

  • You'll taste the bitterness of tannins on the back of your tongue, and it will give your mouth a dry sensation.
  • You'll taste the sourness of acidity on the sides of your tongue, and it will make your mouth water.

Balancing Acidity & Sweetness

A wine's sweetness can balance the acidity so it doesn't taste as tart. Let's go back to our lemon example for a minute. When you bite a lemon wedge, it's very sour. However, when you combine the lemon juice that tastes so tart on its own with sugar, like in lemonade, the sweetness makes the lemon taste less sour. The lemon juice still has the same acidity whether you taste it alone or add it to lemonade, but the sugar in the lemonade makes it seem less tart to you. Likewise, the acid in the lemon juice balances the sugar, so it tastes less sweet.

This same thing occurs in wines. For example, late harvest German riesling usually has a good amount of acidity. However, because of the sugars that remain in the wine after fermentation, the acid makes the wine taste lively rather than cloying or overly sweet, and the sugar makes the acid seem vibrant instead of sour.

pH in Wine

All drinks fall somewhere on the pH scale. pH assigns a numeric measure showing how acidic or alkaline something is. Lower numbers indicate higher acid, while higher numbers show lower acid and higher alkalinity. Since wine is acidic, it's lower in pH.

  • Things with the highest acid have a pH of 0.
  • Neutral substances (no acid or alkalinity) like water have a pH of 7.
  • Lemon juice has a pH of 2.3.
  • Most wines have a pH between 3.0 and 3.8+.

To put wine in perspective, look at where it appears on a pH chart compared to other familiar acidic beverages like coffee, tea, cola, and lemon juice.

pH in Wine Infographic

Why Are Some Wines More Acidic Than Others?

Multiple factors play into why some wines are more acidic than others. The growing climate is a huge factor. When grapes are grown in cooler conditions, whether it be at higher elevation, a more northerly latitude, or both, the grapes will retain a bit more of their natural acidity as they slowly ripen. In warmer climates, grapes will ripen more quickly and take on bolder flavors and more alcohol while the acidity takes a back seat.

Some varietals are naturally higher in acid than others. Champagne, riesling, chenin, muscadet, sauvignon blanc, and white burgundy are a few whites that tend to be pretty acid-driven. These varieties grow best in cooler climates where they keep that zippy acidity and freshness. Reds can have high acidity as well. Gamay, Burgundy, cabernet franc, rioja, and nebbiolo all tend to have higher levels of acid that define their profile.

Acid-Driven Varietals
Reds Whites
  • Gamay
  • Burgundy
  • Cabernet franc
  • Rioja
  • Nebbiolo
  • Champagne
  • Riesling
  • Chenin blanc
  • Muscadet
  • Sauvignon blanc
  • White Burgundy

How Acid In Wine Affects Other Aspects of Wine

Between the acid, tannins, alcohol, and sugar, there's a lot going on in your glass of wine. None of these aspects live in a silo, so one can drown out another, clash, or come together to create a whole new sensation. When you are drinking an acid-driven wine, it will actually tame the residual sugar that's there and make it seem drier than it really is. So sometimes a real acid bomb needs to retain a bit of sugar to help balance it out, but it won't actually come across as sweet. In reverse, a dessert wine needs good acidity to keep it from tasting sickly sweet.

Acidic Wines & Food

If you like higher acid wines, you're in luck when it comes to food pairings. Acid-driven wines are some of the most food-friendly wines around. The acid cuts into fatty foods like rich mac and cheese, potato chips, and fried chicken. Eating salty or acidic foods will actually tame your sensory experience of the acid in the wine. So if you don't start off with a higher acid wine, it will appear flat and flabby compared to the food.

It's All About Balance

Acidity in wine is an essential piece that brings balance to your overall perception of the wine. Working with the terroir and grapes to nail that perfect amount of acid isn't easy, but it really makes or breaks a wine. If you want to practice identifying acidity in your glass, pour a few varietals from varying climates and focus in on that mouth-watering sensation post sip. You'll start to detect the acid on the sides of your tongue and figure out what styles of wine you are more drawn to.

Guide to Wine Acidity & How It Affects Your Tasting Experience