Wine experts often toss around terms that sound vague or undefined. “Freshness” is often among them. Sure, you know when a vegetable tastes fresh or has passed its prime, but what does freshness mean in wine?
There are two ways that the word is used by wine pros. The first simply indicates that the wine has been uncorked/unscrewed recently and tastes like it. A wine that’s been open too long begins to oxidize and turn dull in taste and color. Such a wine has lost its glimmer.
The second definition refers to the interplay of a wine’s acidity with fruit and mouthfeel. When a winemaker speaks of freshness, they’re usually talking about this sensation.
Highlighting freshness in wine has become a recent trend, especially amongst European winemakers. According to Pauline Lapierre of Château Haut-Rian in Bordeaux, freshness is the positive quality of acidity.
In the cooler climates of the past, many European vintners struggled to ripen grapes. Often, the acidity left a sour and unappealing flavor. Even places thought as moderate or warm climates, like Chianti in Tuscany or Southwestern France, occasionally suffered from thin, low-alcohol, tart wines.
“My grandfather and father faced difficult vintages,” says Lapierre. “Back then, a good winemaker was someone who could manage sharp acidity when a vintage was poor.”
Today, the problem has reversed. Winemakers are tasked to keep the freshness in their wines amid the risk of grapes over-ripening.
Freshness when describing wine, however, is more than a measure of tartaric acid in grams or a number on a pH scale. It’s the liveliness of the mouthfeel and the purity and vivid character of the fruit. It’s strawberries or raspberries that taste plucked from the patch, rather than baked in a pie. Or grapefruit, lemon and other citrus fruits that sparkle like fresh-squeezed juice, rather than poured from a carton.
Even wines with moderate to low acidity can taste fresh, due to the balance achieved through viticultural and winemaking techniques. These include grapes harvested at the right time, the avoidance of overextraction in color, tannin and flavor, or to protect wines against excessive oxidation during the winemaking, aging and bottling processes.
As Lapierre says, “freshness is becoming scarcer and more precious, making it essential [that] winemakers know how to achieve balance in their wines.”