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Volatile Acidity - Friend or Foe?

The world of Natural Wines can often be a foray into a spectrum of flavours that you probably wouldn’t find in your average bottle of supermarket plonk. Some of these can be less than pleasant, others can be totally eye opening and lift the wine out of the ordinary. Volatile acidity is one of those flavours.

So what is it?
Volatile acidity is the presence of certain acids in the wine, such as acetic acid, caused by bacteria or certain yeasts and can occur at any point in the winemaking process. Volatile refers to the fact that it releases an aroma, whereas other acids do not. The bacteria can get in through damaged grapes, bugs on the bunches, or simply through the air when the vats are either not air-tight (such as wood barrels) or they are opened. Modern winemaking eliminates a lot of these issues through use of pesticides, sulphur dioxide and use of heavily disinfected, stainless steel vats where the fermentation is carefully controlled.

How can you spot it in a wine?
The most extreme example is that vinegary smell you get when you’ve had the bottle open too long. Though fairly rare these days, this can still occur prior to opening if bacteria have slipped in the bottle at some point. You might also notice a strange aroma of nail polish remover or other solvents, which might be a tad off-putting if you’ve sat down to enjoy a bottle of Cab-Sav. In very low levels, it can add a tart-cherry or raspberry characteristic.

Why is it more common in Natural wines?
Natural wines eschew chemical intervention so there are less safeguards to prevent the bacteria getting in – they rely on good quality fruit and sound winemaking practice. The use of ambient yeasts can also contribute to the levels of volatile acidity as certain yeasts are more likely to induce these sorts of reactions than others.

Why would I want this in a wine?
Very low levels of VA can give wines a complexity of flavour that you simply wouldn’t get otherwise. Traditional Barolos and Amarones classically have hints, which, however subtle, define them as being some of the best wines in the world. Velluto’s Amarones, some of our favourite wines, have a detectable hint of VA, but in the context of such a complex, authentic wine, it is just one of the many treasures that 5 years in Slovenian oak barrels has yielded.
Within the context of natural wines, where wines are often full of slightly funkier characteristics, it can be hard to detect, but some of our favourite natural wines all display subtle characteristics of VA. For me, it is one of those imperfections in a wine which gives soul and character. I have only detected it on certain occasions, and a 1990 bottle of Amarone from Velluto was one of those occasions, when the faint whiff of nail polish created a very human sense of imperfection, which I loved and for me created a warmth and approachability.

Some of our favourite wines that display such characteristics are below.

1.  Valpolicella Superiore Velluto

2. Cecchin Malbec Sin Sulfiti

3. Belotti Rosso

4. Theodora Gut Oggau

5. Belotti Bianco

6. Terbianc Cinque Campi

Compare these with wines such as

  1. Altos Hormigas Malbec
  2. Valpolicella Ripasso Antolini
  3. Primitivo Mocavero
  4. Ciu Ciu Pecorino
  5. Janthial Bourgogne Blanc
  6. Sancerre Bourgeois

and hopefully that subtle hint of VA should start to present itself.

Before the dawn of modern winemaking, these flavours would have been prevalent in wines of all types, along with other flaws that industrial methods have sought to eradicate, but for a Natural wine enthusiast these are signs of a wine’s authenticity, and perhaps even its humanity and soul.
As with life partners, flaws and faults may not be the sorts of things that you look for, but they are often what make someone endearing, and ultimately, loveable - and it's the same with wine.