WINE 101: How to deal if wine gives you heartburn

I have a friend, Bryan, with a rather sensitive stomach. Acid reflux, heartburn, queasiness, ulcers, and other ailments hit him from time to time. He’s also an integral part of our weekly wine podcast, so it often creates problems. He’s even had to cancel wine trips because of it. He’s a great lover of red wines, but these days, most white wines seem to scare him away. He thinks that acidic wine might be to blame.

The role of acidity

Acidic elements are an essential part of wine. Acids are what make wines tart or sour. If acid levels are too low in a wine, they tend to be dull. If acid levels are too high, they tend to be tart, sour, or even give a “burning your mouth” sensation.

pH is a measure of the acidic or basic properties of a solution. As examples, water has a pH of 7 (neutral), coffee is 5 (acidic), stomach acid is 1-2 (very acidic), baking soda is 9 (basic), and bleach is 13 (very basic). In terms of our subject, vinegar is 4.5 and wine is usually around 3.5.

Acids in wine

There are two predominant acid types when dealing with wine — tartaric acid and malic acid. Tartaric acid is the classic “acid” taste — balanced amounts can make for crisp, “zippy” flavors, but too much and the wine will be burning and unpleasant. Malic acid is that ripe apple taste you get in many Chardonnays.

White wines, in general, tend to be more acidic than red wines. Malic acid is often removed in winemaking through Malolactic Fermentation, a process that turns the more tart Malic acids into a more buttery and creamy Lactic acid. If you’ve ever had a creamy or buttery Chardonnay, you’ve had a wine that’s gone through some Malolactic Fermentation.

On the vine

Acids, sugars, and tannins are all present in wines to some extent. On the vine, grapes will start out very acidic, and slowly, the acid levels will drop and the sugar levels will rise as the grape ripens. This is why many grapes produced in areas with shorter, cooler growing seasons often have problems with acid levels near the end of the growing season, when fall freezes are nearing and sugar levels haven’t risen to the levels preferred by the winemaker.

Once off the vine, winemakers will often attempt to find balance in the styles and types of wines. As drinkers, we look toward the finished product. We drink reds, observing the balance of tannins and acids, and drink whites, observing the balance of acids and sugars.

What does this mean?

So why does Bryan’s stomach hurt so much on the sharp, crisp Chardonnays and Rieslings? In the end, it’s all about his body, and not so much the wine. As we age, stomach acid production often decreases. For people like this, wines and vinegars with meals will actually help the digestion process. The increased pH of wine and vinegar in the breakdown of food, assisting in the natural production of stomach acids.

For our friend Bryan, though, his body seems to already produce an abundance of stomach acid — too much, in fact. Acids in wines and vinegars promote stomach acid production, so his stomach, especially if it’s empty, will feel very, very upset. Even worse, the alcohol in wines tends to loosen the muscles around the top of the stomach. This can cause acid reflux when the stomach acids “splash” into the lower esophagus.

So, should Bryan stay away from white wines altogether? Well, some general rules should apply. Drink lots of water when tasting and drinking wine. Water will tend to neutralize the stomach acids. Always eat when tasting and drinking wine. Again, this gives the stomach acids “something to do,” and your acid levels will normalize.

Lastly, limit consumption. Yes, Bryan may be “that guy” who needs to use the spit bucket at the end of the wine tasting bar. He can enjoy all the tastes and smells of white wines, but he should limit consumption for his stomach’s sake.

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