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Auxerrois: A Lesson from Alsace on Wine's Acidity

Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Let's try them all.

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[Photo: Stevie Stacionis]

The Wine Grapes entry to Auxerrois begins, "Low-acid variety useful in cool climates."

Let's pause there. Why would low acid grapes be useful in cool climates?

Acidity is one of the most basic elements in a wine, and knowing whether or not you like it—and understanding where to look for it—will dramatically increase the odds of ending up with a wine you like. You could think of acidity as sourness or tartness in a wine, but in measured doses, it can also provide a sense of balance, lift or refreshment.

You may recall from previous posts that I'm an acid freak. I love it in my wines; I need it in my wines.

How do you know if you like high acidity? Answer these questions: Did you love Sour Patch Kids as a child? Do you prefer your lemonade more tart than sweet? Would you rather eat an under-ripe piece of fruit than an over-ripe one? If you answered "yes," you probably love acidity in your wine. (Welcome to my club. Perhaps we will make punk-rock-inspired T-shirts for ourselves.)

Back to the Wine Grapes introduction to Auxerrois: A low-acid grape variety is useful in cool climates because cool climates help preserve acidity. The warmer the weather, the riper the grapes can get. Think about that piece of fruit you're buying: if it's under-ripe (hasn't had enough warm days to ripen) it will taste sour; overripe (spent too long in the sun) will be super sweet. In theory, growing a low-acid grape in a cool climate should give you a nicely balanced wine with a bit of lift. On the other hand, growing a high-acid grape in a cool climate would give you a wine that screeches across your palate, sour and electric.

This basic correlation between acidity and climate gives you a big blazing hint to finding a wine you like: Look at the weather in the place the grapes were grown. If it's a fairly cool or even cold climate, its wines will tend to be higher in acidity than those grown in warmer climates. Wine lovers use words like bright, lively, refreshing, or even tart to describe high-acid wines. If the wine is from a pretty warm climate, its wines will likely taste lower in acidity (you could use words like round, soft or even generous to describe them).

All of this finally brings me to my point, and my bottle of 2011 Albert Mann Auxerrois Vieilles Vignes. The wine gleamed in my glass, a beautiful, pale, shimmering silver-and-gold color. It sent up soft whispers of yellow apple, yellow pear, orange blossom and nutmeg notes, all gentle and delicate. In between mixing up a batter for corn cakes, I sipped... and was a little surprised. The Auxerrois swooped across the palate but then billowed out into a round, plush texture with warm flavors of yellow roses, baked pineapple, golden raisin and dried mango. It was clearly a low-acid variety; but evidence of that cool climate was not so clear.

Which led me to wonder about the popularity of planting Auxerrois in Alsace. It is, in fact, more planted in Alsace ("where it is the second most planted white variety after Riesling," says Wine Grapes) than anywhere else in the world. The thing is, despite what you might expect based on its location in northern France, Alsace isn't a super cool climate. The region nestles in next to the Vosges mountains, which create a unique phenomenon you might recall from middle school science class: the rain shadow effect. Rain clouds get all backed up against the other side of the mountain, leaving Alsace splendidly sunny and dry. Grapes often ripen more regularly and reliably here than in regions further south.

And so I have to say, while the wine was lovely and a nice match for corn cakes and butter-sautéed shrimp, I have to wonder if I'd go from liking Auxerrois to loving it were it sent even further up into the hills, into even cooler climes... And then, perhaps, we acid freaks could pay homage to it on our T-shirts.

2011 Albert Mann Auxerrois Vieilles Vignes
The Grape: Auxerrois
The Region: Alsace, France
The importer: Weygandt-Metzler
Retail price: $19

About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. She's currently drinking her way through the 1,368 varieties included in Wine Grapes. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks With Friends TV.

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