Tasting Tartaric and Malic Acids
cilck on drawing to enlarge
Acidity in wine composes an important part of the wines’ overall structure, encouraging aging potential, and drinkability alongside food. Acids are present first in the grape, and the levels resulting in the final wine reflect picking decisions on the part of the winemaker, as well as vinification techniques.
In considering acids levels, one can look at both titratable acidity levels, that is, a measure of the total acidity in the wine itself, and also at the pH, or the intensity (or strength). In addition, however, the types of acid present in the wine can also be considered. Different types of acid create different tasting experiences as they affect the palate in differing ways.
While there are more than a handful of acid types that can be present in a grape or wine, two are the most common and have the most apparent impact on the palate–tartaric and malic acids. Different vineyard sites tend to generate differing levels of each due to both climate and soil distinctions, with irrigation also impacting final levels. However, it is also possible to do acid adds during vinification.
Recognizing the apparent acidity level of a wine is one of the primary elements of a formalized wine tasting regimen. Parsing the two primary acid types adds a further layer of recognition in the wine experience, as well as insight into other aspects of a wine.
Tasting the Actual Acid Solutions
I was able to do a tartaric and malic acid tasting recently. Though the sheer taste experience wasn’t exactly obviously pleasurable, it was one of the funnest ‘wine’ tastings I’ve done recently. I’d already developed plenty of knowledge about acid types found in wine from study and conversation, including their apparent effect on the palate. As a result, I’d been able to track that information in wines tasted as well. But to then have a purely focused singular acid tasting where all that information EXACTLY lined up to the pure phenomenon experience struck me as hilarious. It was a weird form of pleasure to have intellectual knowledge click directly into place with experience. I don’t know how else to put it than to say that the precision of the tartaric acid doing to my mouth EXACTLY what I knew it was supposed to do was joyful. It was a joyful experience.
These types of acid concoctions are used in the production of candies like Fun Dip, Sweettarts, or Candy Necklaces and both the tartaric and malic acids offered a kind of powdery candy aspect without the sweetness. I had Junior taste both acids solutions as well. She remarked that the tartaric acid tasted like the inside of a Gobstopper, where as the malic was like a Candy Necklace. (She also hated it finding the malic acid especially hard to take.)
The two acids hit on markedly different parts of the tongue with tartaric acid at the tip or front quarter, and malic acid directly behind in the front portion of the mid-tongue. Both made the mouth water but tartaric acid gave that classic overt mouth watering-jaw clenching experience often described as acidity in wine (and that I consistently find in a vibrant blanc de blancs), and the malic acid had a less overt and more focused (to the particular area of the tongue rather than overall) watering effect.
In tasting the tartaric acid, it felt immediately salty with lime and lemon flavors floating to the surface after. The malic acid, on the other hand, gave a light green apple (without sweetness) flavor followed by an ultra long silvery metallic sensation.
In terms of sensation, the tartaric acid lit up my whole head like a light bulb in bright sunshine yellow light and a high note pitch of energy. The malic acid by comparison was a much deeper frequency feeling, with a more muted tone to it.
For bullet point notes on the acid distinctions, please see the above drawing. Enjoy!
As a quick note: perception of acidity can be impacted by temperature of the wine, as well as other factors — so if it’s a warm day, cool your wine a bit to get it back to better drinking temperatures. Also, perception of wine does not translate directly to actual measurable acid levels in the wine itself, but nevertheless improving one’s recognition abilities over time is a valuable tool in formalized wine tasting.
Thank you to Jason Lett.
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How did you go about tasting the acid solutions? What are they made of?
Hi Jeff, both acids are available in a powder form (think cream of tartar or baking powder consistency; also, incidentally, cream of tartar and tartaric acid are close relatives) that is mixed at very low levels into water to create the solution. Then it’s tasted in a standard taste-swirl-and-spit fashion similar to wine.
Thanks for the info on the powders. I’ll be on the lookout for them.
Hi Jeff, Winery supply companies sell these powders, though usually in larger quantity. Have fun! Elaine
Expand your tasting next time and try lactic, citric, acetic, and succinic acids. They’re all fun in different ways.
Yes, Dwayne, I intend to! The original intention had been to taste all 5 (acetic is so clear already i yi yi I wasn’t going to include it, though I could of course) but in the end only the two were what were available.
I am intrigued that you found different parts of your tongue reacting to the different acids, as I had been led to believe that modern research has debunked the old “wine map” of the tongue (except there still seems to be consensus that we initially detect sweetness on the tip). Sounds like you had great fun!
Hi Michael, thanks for your comment. The idea that the tongue map is wrong critiques the notion that *everyone* has the same tasting zones (so a claim about flavor rather than general muscular-salivary response). The popular mapping idea suggested that the specific tastes of sweet, sour, salty, etc were concentrated to certain regions of the tongue, and that this was more-or-less universal physiology. Here’s where the mistake happened: The original scientist to do the study claimed all along that the different zones were subtle but someone after him misunderstood his results and reprinted the information as reflecting distinctive and definitive zones on the tongue. That error was then repeated again and again.
Clark Smith, who recently released his book Postmodern Winemaking, asserts that the different acids that appear in wine stimulate different zones on the tongue in sequence–TA at the tip, malic just behind, lactic mid tongue but behind malic, then citrus towards the back. In order to substantiate this idea he draws on the view that the mouth response portion of the wine acid experience (and to sourness in general) is do to the release of Hydrogen Ions in the mouth. This is a commonly argued view from scientists explaining how we taste sour, and that different types of sour appear due to differing levels of ion release. However, recent scientific studies have begun challenging the idea that it is ions doing this, so the question is still up in the air. Cool stuff though.
[…] a couple times in their breakdown of this coffee and when I investigated that further I found this descriptor of tartaric acid as having a lot of lemon as well as a salinity or saltiness to it. My tasting notes didn’t […]
HI I love your diagram helps very quickly explain the difference. do you have anything on citric acid as to how this compares to the other two acids mentioned
I know that it is possible to be a “non-taster” when it comes to tartaric acid. Is it also possible to be a “non-taster” of malic acid?
hi I would like to do this, what concentrations did you use?