Devil's Advocate: Vinegar or Wine?

Robert Joseph wonders if younger consumers - and sommeliers - are growing more tolerant of volatile acidity than older experts.

Reading time: 3m 30s

Robert Joseph - with horns
Robert Joseph - with horns

Let’s talk about wine’s best-known liquid offspring: vinegar. Or, to be more precise, let’s talk about wine that has enough volatile acidity – VA – to be considered vinegary.

As its name suggests VA is not a precise term; technically it refers to all of the acids – acetic, butyric, carbonic, formic, proponic and sulfurous - that can be vaporized more easily than non-volatile malic and tartaric.  But it is more usually shorthand for the offensive aromas and flavours of by far the strongest of these: acetic acid – the vinegary one.

As with Brettanomyces and TCA cork taint, human thresholds vary quite widely but it is generally reckoned that VA can be detected at levels of 0.7-0.9 g/l, though this can vary depending on the style of wine. VA can be perceived differently depending on the style of wine and low levels can – arguably like brett - add to complexity and appeal. Too much, however, is considered an offensive fault. In Europe a legally enforced ceiling of 1.2 g/l is enforced.

Even at sommelier competitions...

At the 2023 Best Sommelier of the World competition, the three finalists were individually given a red wine to taste and comment on. All three praised it unreservedly, with one in particular doing so at some length. It had a VA level of over 1.2 g that none mentioned.

I was in the privileged position of sitting among the judges of the competition, and aware of the VA. My companions were shocked that none of the finalists, who’d all proven their tasting skills repeatedly to earn their place in the final, had spotted it. When I had the chance to sample the wine, I fully agreed with them, but I also bore in mind that, unlike the finalists, my encounter with it was not under pressures of time, competition and an audience of thousands. The fact remained, however, that they had all missed it.

Later that day I was talking to an American winemaker who’d just made his first red from a young vineyard near Walla Walla in Washington State. The experience, he said, had been challenging, because of the ripeness of the fruit. In the event, he’d ended up with a pH of 3.9 and a Bordeaux blend that tasted nicely balanced without him having to add any acid. But what, he wondered, about his neighbours who’d harvested two weeks later than him? How balanced could their wines have been? How many of them might have had more VA than they ought.

Bad old days

Thirty or so years ago, VA was associated with poor winemaking or cellar management. Grapes or juice might have been contaminated by vinegar flies. Equipment and hoses hadn’t been washed. Badly controlled alcoholic fermentations had stopped or overlapped with malolactic fermentations. Or barrels were simply not topped up often enough. This seemed especially true in Italy where there were often several bottlings of the same vintage, possibly from large casks whose contents had been exposed to far too much oxygen. The problem was so common that British buyers used to joke about not needing directions to some cooperatives: one could simply follow one’s nose.

In those days, the afflicted wines were often lightweight and only moderately ripe if not actually green. Today, very few wine drinkers will ever have encountered wines with anything like the level of leafiness that was common in the 1980s. Just as we’ve all become used to juicily sweet apples, we’re now accustomed to softer, rounder reds. Far too often, blame for this is directed at Robert Parker and Michel Rolland, and not where it should be: at our collective overuse of fossil fuels. And, of course, at the fact that, given the choice, most people prefer this style.

Hands off

All of which brings us to VA today. Most forms of careless winemaking are thankfully far, far rarer than they were was 30 years ago. Paradoxically, however, there are man-made reasons for it actually having become more prevalent than it was a decade ago. Producers have switched back to relying on wild yeasts, cut down on SO2 – or given up on it altogether – and embraced the notion of bottling without acidification or filtration. All of these are potential contributary factors for VA – especially when combined with grapes that grow riper with almost every vintage.

Back in April 2018, Toni Paterson MW wrote in the Australian publication, the Real Review that she had increasingly found herself sending back what she considered to be VA-spoiled wines in restaurants. The problem, as she saw, it was a “hands-off winemaking approach” which “when done well, can result in wines of interest and intrigue, often with impressive texture and complexity”.

Less efficient efforts, however, she said, could have “assertive volatile acidity [that] can override all the attractive aspects of a wine.”

Strikingly, in Australia, the legal limit for VA is 1.5g/l. In the US it’s 1.4. Both are significantly higher than the figure in Europe. In all three markets, wines are almost certainly closer to these ceilings than they were and, while Toni Paterson and I might not appreciate some of the more heavily tainted examples, I’ll bet that plenty of other customers drink them uncomplainingly, or even with pleasure.

All of which brings me back to the Meilleur Sommelier competition. The wine the three finalists were given was a fairly full-bodied modern red. Maybe it was not dissimilar to many high quality wines they’d all been tasting during their training exercises. Maybe, just as we are all having to change our views on the importance of wine clarity and white wine colour since the advent of natural wine, we may have to adjust our thresholds for volatile acidity.




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