Here’s a call to arms: Let’s call it “freshness.”

You know what I mean: that quality of wine that makes it food-friendly. That keeps it from sitting on your tongue like pudding, tiring your mouth. That refreshing quality.

Which we have been scaring newcomers to wine by calling “acidity.”

I’m starting this essay in the Paris airport, after a week tasting wine in France with winemakers, growers and marketing people. Most of them spoke English with me. The wines were all high-acid, and sometimes a grower talked about the pH or acidity of the grapes. But I don’t remember one French wine specialist using the word “acidity” to describe a wine. For them, a wine has “good freshness,” or is “very fresh.”

How is that French people have learned to communicate in English better than we have? Sacrebleu!

A 2005 Wine Opinions survey found that the descriptor with the second most negative connotation for Americans is “crisp or tangy with distinct acidity.” (The worst was “dry and tannic.”) I’ve been horrified by that survey since I first read it, because that’s exactly the kind of wine I want to drink.

It’s possible that the average consumer really does want low-acid wines. But it’s also possible that our use of language—you and me, the wine-loving community—is turning Americans away from the very wines we want them to try.

Linguistics and culture are crucial in selling products. The classic example is the Chevy Nova, which didn’t sell in Latin America because “no va” in Spanish means “doesn’t go.” But there are plenty of wine-specific examples as well.

In Italy, you can call a wine “sour” or “bitter” and people will buy it. Imagine telling the average American you’re going to finish a meal with a glass of “bitter.” We tell them, “Have an amaro” because it sounds romantic; we don’t tell them what it means.

Recently I was in Montepulciano and, told I was going to taste some 20-year-old wines, I exclaimed, “Sweet!” The winemakers were nonplussed; they insisted that the wines were not sweet, and that’s when I realized that the positivity of my interjection was culturally specific.

I wrote a story a couple years ago about how “easy to drink” has become a negative to Americans, which is ridiculous if you think about it: you want something that’s difficult to drink? We might think French and Italians are savvier about that concept, and maybe they are. But they also have syntatic help: grammatically, in French and Italian, “the wine drinks itself.” Not just delicious, it’s also labor-saving! If only the dishes washed themselves.

Linguistic relativity of wine is by no means limited to the U.S. and Europe. You have to be careful how you describe older wines in China, because as Jade Valley Wine founder Qingyun Ma says, “If you say a wine tasted like leather, they don’t want to put that in their mouth.”

Aussies use the phrase “cat pee” when describing Sauvignon Blanc because they generally don’t mind taking the piss out of anyone. But a newspaper I worked at, in wine-savvy San Francisco no less, banned the phrase when readers complained that they didn’t want to see it while eating breakfast.

So, my fellow Americans, do we really need to keep using “acidity?” I know it’s a technical term, but so is “dry extract,” and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a tasting note.

We don’t need to be technical to communicate. Health writers don’t say “myocardial infarction,” they say “heart attack.” Nobody is confused.

Acidity is scary. Acidity melts your teeth, burns your stomach, gets thrown into the faces of adulterers in Pakistan. It’s not something you enjoy on your porch on a hot day; it’s the fast, painful way to get rid of a wart.

Coca-Cola, with a pH of about 2.5, is far more acidic than any wine I know. Have you ever seen a Coke ad touting its “refreshing acidity?” This is a company that knows how to communicate. For years Coke used “the pause that refreshes.” Too bad that’s trademarked, as it would also work great for Wines of Germany.

Appealing language is crucial not just in convincing readers to buy a wine, but also telling them how to enjoy it. I wonder if anyone ever used the word “blockbuster” to describe a wine before Robert Parker.

A major reason for Parker’s popularity is the enthusiasm he puts into his tasting notes. It’s easy to mock his specificity. But stand back for a moment and read him as a novice might. “Complex” isn’t as tantalizing as “packed with layers of flavor.” Parker touts wines that are sumptuous, voluptuous and packed with blackberry jam, dark chocolate, coffee. Mmm, mmm. Would you rather ingest that or something high in acid that tastes like wet stone?

Yes, I know, the latter. The next time you’re on an airplane, though, ask your neighbor the same question. Or call your cousin or mother or non-oenophile friends. In the oneophile bubble, we often forget what we sound like to outsiders. Let that Wine Opinions poll be a reminder.

So join me in this. I pledge that for the rest of this year, I’m going to avoid using “acidity” in any of my tasting notes. Maybe one day the American wine market will change and I can put that word back in my toolbox. But for now, I’m going to pour sulfuric acid on it and burn it away.

Now if you’ll excuse me, this moral crusade has given me a powerful thirst. I’m going to open the fridge and see what I’ve got in there. Hopefully I’ve got a nice Sauvignon Blanc or Vinho Verde or Assyrtiko. Something with great freshness.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.[/author_info] [/author]

About The Author

W. Blake Gray
Staff Writer

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to The Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

  • Lisa Duff-Khajavi

    Spot on, cheers!

  • Erika Szymanski

    Not sure how I feel about this one. Not because I love acidity — I do, but I know that I’ve been breathing the rarefied air for a while — but because “freshness” has such potential for misinterpretation. Honestly, I can see some of my non wine-indoctrinated friends asking if the wine I’m describing as “fresh” was just made — as in fresh from the vineyard — and maybe even if that’s bad because “good” wine is so often aged. I don’t know. Maybe “brightness?” I can imagine describing a wine as “bright” though, then again, I don’t know how easily I’d be understood. I agree that we don’t need to be technical all the time, but I guess that I’d like to think that “acidity” is within reach.

    • Lenn Thompson


      Interesting points — but it’s easy to wonder what all of these terms might mean to people outside of our geekitude.

      I’ve used “bright” in tasting notes before — but what does that mean? Obviously it’s not about the wine’s intelligence. Is it about the way the light bounces off of it?

      I think fresh is slightly better, but you’re right — there’s room for questions or interpretation there too.

      Of course when a lot of people hear “acid” or “acidity” are they thinking battery acid, or vinegar or some un-appetizing thing.

      I like this discussion, but it seems like maybe it’s only just begun.

  • David White

    I fear the phrase “freshness” creates just as many problems.

    What’s the opposite of fresh? Sour? Spoiled? Point is, if high-acid wines are fresh, everything else is “flat” (at best) and “sour” or “spoiled” at worst.

    • Lenn Thompson

      I think the opposite of fresh is ‘stale’ which does work for wine, no?

      Not saying ‘freshness’ is ideal though.

  • Jason Phelps

    I think freshness has some challenges because of how it used to describe food. There is already a good/bad setup there.

    How about we call it the wine’s “focus”? I’ve used that word to describe acidity as I know others have as well. When I talked with Iain Riggs from Brokenwood last week he used the phrase “line in length” to describe the acidity profile he looks for in his reserve Semillons. I definitely feel that a structural or mechanical type word would work best as a synonym.


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  • Dana Estep

    How about a variation on fresh – refreshing? I find most wines with good acidity refreshing. As a word, it doesn’t have an opposite word that comes as quickly to mind as stale or sour do for fresh. It also doesn’t have the “just made” connotation that fresh can have.

    • Erika Szymanski

      Refreshing. I like it.

      • Todd – VT Wine Media

        I like it too, even though acidity still is most direct.
        Maybe Wines of Germany can at least use
        “the Pfalz that refreshes”

  • Ryan Reichert

    Geeky or not, I think we’re debating ambiguity here. Acidity is a structural component of wine, and should be recognized as such—why not use it as an educational opportunity for consumers? For me it is just as important as noting a wine’s balance of alcohol, body, tannin, or any other structural component. That all said, what seems to be the issue is a lack of context … as is often the case when we consider the gap between the people selling and the people buying. Instead of trying to swap one ambiguous term for another in an effort to be more appealing, we should be providing useful context: “wines with higher acidity are ideal food wines as the acidity (balances high acid foods/cleanses your palate)” or “the mellow acidity of this wine makes it easy to sip on its own.” And people seem to understand the context of acidity in food, and don’t have any issues talking about it then, so this seems like a perfect opportunity.

    • Blake Gray

      Ryan: Discussing acidity as a structural component of wine is perfectly valid. My pledge is to not use it in tasting notes, not to avoid using in talking about grapes.

      I strongly dispute that consumers understand the role of acidity in food. And we’re not that technical in talking about food. You don’t read menu descriptions talking about protein or residual sugar. It’s not appetizing.

      Some of our role in writing about wine is to educate. But people don’t want education all the time. Plenty of times they want a delicious glass of wine.

      It really is striking that French vintners will talk about acidity in grapes but freshness in wines. That’s not marketing; it’s a way of thinking.

      • Ryan Reichert

        Blake, replying backwards:
        • That is interesting the difference that they make.
        • Agreed completely … and a shelf talker that is aiming to get someone to buy the bottle is not the place to have that term. There are far too many descriptive words that can take up that space and help people choose what to drink. In the right context, talking about a wine’s acidity is still important.
        • Really? Maybe living in such a foodie city has me fooled; but even in consumer facing roles I’ve talked with people about acidity in food, and it seems much easier for them to grasp than the concept of acidity in wine.
        • My tasting notes are nearly half based on structure … and nearly wholly on perception. So personally, evaluation of a wine’s acidity is necessary for me to include, but I’m anxious to see how your experiment goes over the next year. Cheers!

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  • Ryan Moore

    Im all for consumer clarity and breaking down the historical wall between general wine drinkers and educators, however if the French are so reveloutionary in their use of “freshness” as opposed to “acidity”, you’d think they’d be selling more wine.

    Also, not all high acid wines can be described as fresh.

    My experience working with relative wine novices is that they don’t mind the terminology, even if they don’t understand it. What they do mind, are wine-types actinging as if they *should* understand it without explanation.

  • Jim Wilkerson / VINEgeek

    I like the term crisp or crispness, but I find that I use it mainly for whites not high-acid reds.

  • Erika Szymanski

    I’ll add that Peynaud is on your side, Blake. I just revisited Le Gout de Vin this evening and he recommends “fresh” in his vocabulary to describe acidity.

  • Mike

    Great article, Blake. I agree completely. In reply to some of the commenters, I don’t read the article to say that “freshness” is the only option for every context. Depending on the particular wine, and with the other parts of the description as context, it seems to me that there may be a number of words better than “acidity” that would be appropriate, including “