How to Expertly Manage pH Levels in Your Wine Using Malic Acid

Thursday, November 2, 2023
Picture this iconic scene from the classic TV series, Knight Rider: K.I.T.T., the talking car, is submerged in an acid bath, only to emerge completely stripped of its exterior. This vivid image serves as a stark reminder that not all acids are created equal, especially when it comes to the delicate art of winemaking. 

In the realm of wine, there’s one acid that stands out as the preferred choice for balancing pH levels - malic acid.

Derived from the Latin word "malum," meaning apple, malic acid is a naturally occurring compound found in various fruits, with apples and grapes topping the list. 

Have you ever sunk your teeth into a Granny Smith apple and experienced that sharp, tangy taste? 

That's malic acid in action, a close relative of citric acid and a popular ingredient used to impart a sour flavor to various food products. 

Those salt and vinegar chips you find irresistible? 

That tang comes from a combination of vinegar and malic acid.

using malic acid to reduce the pH of home made wine
Believe it or not, this is a representation of a wine maker adding malic acid to their homemade wine...

When it comes to winemaking, the role of malic acid is nothing short of crucial. It serves as a valuable tool for winemakers, allowing them to fine-tune the pH levels of their wine to achieve the perfect balance between acidity, sweetness, and bitterness. The significance of this balance cannot be overstated. A wine with an excess of acidity will have a sharp, sour taste that overwhelms the palate, while a wine lacking in acidity will feel flat and uninspiring, with its true flavors remaining elusive.

To ensure their wine hits that sweet spot, savvy winemakers employ pH testers like the Apera to measure acidity levels meticulously. A word of caution, though - wines destined for malolactic fermentation, such as reds and sparklings, should not have additional malic acid added. This is because malic acid will convert to lactic acid during the fermentation process.

Now, let's delve into the specific types of wines that can benefit from the addition of malic acid. These include:
  • Most reds
  • Rieslings
  • Gewurztraminer
  • Muscat
Timing is everything when adding malic acid to wine. It can be incorporated before or after the primary fermentation process and during any blending or aging periods. However, keep in mind that an increase in acidity will be more noticeable to the drinker.

As for the quantity of malic acid to add, a general rule of thumb is that 3.4 grams per gallon of wine will adjust the acidity by +0.1%. It's worth noting that malic acid tends to lower pH levels less than tartaric acid, making it the preferred choice for some winemakers.

Let's take a moment to explore the fascinating process of malolactic fermentation. This chemical reaction sees the naturally occurring malic acid in grapes transformed into lactic acid by lactic acid bacteria. Common in the production of most red wines and some white varieties, such as Chardonnay, this secondary fermentation usually follows the primary fermentation phase. The result is a wine with a rich, rounded 'mouth feel' that is sure to delight the palate.

malic acid levels

For those curious about how beer makers tackle the challenges of bitterness and pH levels, gypsum salt and calcium chloride are the ingredients of choice. And for the adventurous homebrewers out there experimenting with fruit juice-based hooch, malic acid can be your secret weapon to achieving that perfect balance.

Now if you've mastered the pH of your wine, why not make a tipple featuring cherries?
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