Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Alphabet Soup of Wine

You may have noticed that some wineries provide technical sheets for their wines. These sheets often contain a bunch of acronyms - pH, TA, RS, and ABV. Ever wonder what they mean and whether you should care? Let’s demystify this alphabet soup of wine.

Alphabet Soup by Sigmund on Unsplash

pH stands for potential of hydrogen or power of hydrogen. It measures the acidity or alkilinity of an aqueous solution. The pH scale ranges from 1 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Wine is acidic, and its pH usually runs in the 3’s. White wines pH is typically in the 3.0 to 3.6 range, and red wines in the 3.4 to 3.9 range. Wines with lower pH tend to be more puckering on the palate, while wines with higher pH tend to be rounder. Think lemon juice versus tomato juice.

pH Scale by Alvy16 on WiKimedia Commons
In the vineyard, pH is used in conjunction with TA (or Titratable Acidity), sugar, and flavor to determine the optimal time for harvest. pH in grapes increases as they ripen and further rises incrementally during the fermentation process. If pH is lower than 3.0, it may be an indication that the grapes have been harvested before they are fully ripened. The resulting wine flavor may not be well developed. The reverse is true if pH is more than 4, suggesting a flabby wine with little acidity to liven it. 

Fun Fact: Acidity acts as a buffer to preserve wine. Wine collectors often favor a vintage with a lower pH for cellaring.


TA is often used to refer to Total Acidity and Titratable Acidity interchangeably. The truth is that Total Acidity is the measure of both titratable and non-titratable acids. However, because Titratable Acidity is easier to derive, it is often used as an approximation of Total Acidity. In this blog post, TA refers to Titratable Acidity. A good TA range for white wines is 7-9 g/L and that for red wines is 6-8 g/L. 

While pH measures the intensity of acids, TA measures the concentration of acids. To illustrate the difference between pH and TA, let’s make a Bloody Mary.
Bloody Mary by Toni Osmundson on Unsplash

1. Mix 0.5 oz of lemon juice to 2 oz of vodka and taste it. It will likely pucker you up! 

2. To that, add 4 oz of tomato juice, mix, and taste again. It will taste less sour. 

Both lemon juice and tomato juice are acidic ingredients. However, lemon juice contains citric acid which has a low pH of 2, while tomato juice contains a blend of citric, malic, and ascorbic acids with a combined pH of 4.1 to 4.4. So even though the concentration of acids (or TA) in the drink has increased with the addition of the tomato juice, the intensity of the combined acids has decreased.

 3. Now add your Worcestershire sauce, Tobasco sauce, horseradish, celery salt, and all the other good stuff and enjoy!

Fun Fact: While some wine collectors use pH as an indication of good acidity and therefore aging potential, others use TA as a measure. A vintage with a higher TA is definitely preferred for aging to a vintage with lower TA. 


RS stands for residual sugar, the leftover grape sugar after alcoholic fermentation is completed. RS is measured using g/L or %. (10 g/L is 1% residual sugar.) Most dry wines will have close to zero residual sugar so you don’t typically see RS listed in the tech sheet. Sweet wine starts at about 35 g/L or 3.5% RS and can go up to over 200 g/L or 20% RS. 

Sauternes by Jeff Burrows on Unsplash
Some of the best sweet wines are produced as a result of botrytis, also known as Noble Rot. Botrytis is a type of fungus that causes grapes to shrivel. As water content evaporates from the grapes, the sugar level increases and intensifies. This causes alcoholic fermentation to complete with excess sugar remaining. Famous botrytized wines include French Sauternes, Hungarian Tokaji, and German Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese.

Fun Fact: The most expensive botrytized wine is the Royal Tokaji Essencia that at one point cost $40,000 a bottle. The last I checked, you can get a half bottle for about $1,000.


Last but not least, ABV stands for Alcohol by Volume. It measures how much alcohol is in 100 mL of wine and uses % as the unit of measure. ABV of a wine is dependent on the grape sugar pre-fermentation. During alcoholic fermentation, wine yeast converts grape sugar into ethanol. Wine grapes or vitis vinifera often reach 22 to 26 degrees Brix (symbol °Bx) by harvest. 1 °Bx is 1 g of sugar in 100 g of crushed grape juice and will yield about 0.55% in alcohol content. 22 to 26 °Bx will yield about 12.1 to 14.3% ABV.

Measuring Brix
While most new world wines tend to run high in ABV, some European wines have less than 10% ABV. Moscato d’Asti runs around 5-6% ABV, and German Riesling runs around 7-8% ABV. By law, these old world wines are required to stop fermentation before all the sugars are converted to alcohol to create the respective styles of sweet wines.

Fun Fact: In the United States, the alcohol excise tax for wine above 16% ABV is about 50% higher than that for wine at 16% ABV and below. For that reason, you will not see many bottles of wine (if any!) with ABV above 16%.

I hope you enjoy the demystifying of the alphabet soup of wine and gain some confidence in reading wine technical sheets. And if you are hoping to start a wine cellar, you are now armed with a bit more knowledge on how to pick wines with aging potential. Salud!

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Apa Plagã? Wine from Bali?

“Do you like the wine?” The wait staff asked in anticipation.

I had been having Sauvignon Blanc with dinner at the off-the-beaten-path beach resort in Bintan Island. It was wet and balmy during the monsoon season. Sauvignon Blanc seemed like the best bet with spicy scrumptious Indonesian dishes. The spartan wine menu listed three whites and three reds, just grape varieties. No winery and no vintage were mentioned, making it easy to switch out certain wines. That was what happened. 

Plagã Sauvignon Blanc

After I told him I actually liked the latest rotation better than the last one, the young man beamed with pride and informed me that the wine was from Plagã, a winery in Bali. An Indonesian wine? Go figure!

Journey of Indonesian Wine

Here’s a little known fact. Indonesian viticulture dates back to the 18th Century in Kupang on Timor island, where locals helped Dutch explorers put down the roots of the first vines. Subsequently, there was an expansion of vineyard areas to Besuki and Banyuwangi in the island of Java. When the Dutch rule in Indonesia ended with World War II and was followed by Indonesian self-rule, the Muslim country imposed strict alcohol controls that set its wine culture back.

In the last couple of decades, however, the Indonesian government has relaxed its controls on alcohol importation and consumption. With an ever rising popularity of Bali as a tourist destination and an increased appetite for fine wines among urban middle-class Indonesians, wine culture is making a swift comeback. 

Viticulture in Bali

The arid high-altitude north coast of Bali is rich with volcanic soil making it suitable for growing wine grapes even in a tropical climate. Vineyards that dot Sanggalangit and Seririt villages grow mostly Probolinggo Biru (or Chasselasloulou), Alphonse-Lavalée, and Muscat. More recently, Syrah (or Shiraz), Pinot Gris (or Pinot Grigio), Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and even Italian grape, Malvasia Nera, were added to the mix.

Vineyard in Sanggalangit Village, Bali
Located just 8 degrees south of the equator with temperature ranging from low 70s to high 80s degrees Fahrenheit, Bali is unconventionally warm for growing vitis vinifera. Vineyards have to experiment with different growing practices to produce viable grapes for winemaking. Also being challenged is the concept of vintage since grapes may be harvested as often as three times a year without the constraints of temperate seasonal changes. As a result, some wineries even stop listing the vintage on the wine label.

Viniculture in Bali

There are about half a dozen wineries in Bali. Some produce wines with grapes from their local estate vineyards while others prefer to source grapes from more conventional wine growing regions. I now have had a taste of a locally grown Indonesian wine and an Indonesian wine that is made from sourced grapes. I can’t say I fully appreciated the former, but I quite enjoy the latter, perhaps because it tastes more familiar.

Founded in 1994, Hatten Wines is the first winery in Bali and one that grows grapes locally. Led by Australian winemaker James Kalleske, the winery offers a wide portfolio of red, white, rosé, and sparkling wines from its estates. Other Balinese wineries with local estate vineyards are Sababay Winery that makes both wines and spirits as well as Cantine Balita that focuses on Italian grapes or Italian-style wines.

Hatten sparkling white
Plagã is one of two Balinese wineries that source grapes outside of Indonesia. The winery was launched in April 2013 by PT Indowines, one of 14 licensed wine importers in Indonesia. Led by Argentinian winemaker Pablo Gonzalez, Plagã wines are made with grapes sourced from Chile, Australia, and parts of Europe. In fact, the Sauvignon Blanc I had was made with 60% Chilean (Central Valley) and 40% Italian (Sicily) grapes. The other Balinese winery Cape Discovery sources its grapes from Australia, New Zealand, and France.

My Verdict: While unexpected, it was fun to taste wine from a tropical climate. My favoring the Indonesian wine that is made with grapes sourced from conventional wine growing regions is likely a personal bias. It may be worthwhile to revisit both types of Indonesian wines side by side and paired with local cuisines. That’s definitely on the list for my next trip to Bali!