One of the interesting takeaways from listening to Dr. Vino’s podcast was the notion of wine being influenced by what happens in the winery with practices that wineries keep quiet due to the real concern that consumers wouldn’t understand them. Some things that immediately come to mind are the addition of acid, “watering back” a wine, the use of wood chips in place of barrels and micro-oxidation made infamous by the film Mondovino. So I’ll pick a new item each week and blog a bit about these somewhat misunderstood and controversial subjects.
Let’s start off with the practice of “watering back” a wine. Although there are strict regulations in most of the wine world about using anything but grapes, in the U.S. winemakers can add water to grape must. Why would anyone want to do this, you might be thinking. Well, the current trend toward fuller bodied wines has led to longer grape hang times to increase the physiological ripeness of the grapes. This leads to not only intense and complex flavors in the resulting wine, but also to more sugar and higher alcohol levels. Since there are additional taxes to be paid for wines of 14.5% alcohol or more and these wines can be too hot in both aroma and flavor, winemakers have a couple of choices. They could run the finished wine through a process to lower the alcohol, but this is expensive and a subject for another post. The most common method is to add water to dilute the sugar before fermentation.
Of course this needs be done very carefully or you will also dilute the flavors and make the wine, literally, watery (sorry, I couldn’t resist). When you think about it, all that is being done is adding back the water lost due to evaporation that would have been there naturally if the grapes were picked a bit earlier. Another good reason to add water is something called “stuck fermentation” where the fermentation process literally stops because the sugar content is too high. This was the original reason for this practice to be allowed in California where grapes get generally riper than in Europe. When questioned about this, many winemakers will point to other countries allowances for adding sugar to the grape must to raise the alcohol level in order to make sound wine. A good point, but each practice can be abused. The good news for consumers is that you can taste the difference in the resulting wine so the winemaker has an incentive to only add as much water to the grape must that they need to avoid stuck fermentations and assure a slightly lower the alcohol level.
So the bottom line for me is to judge the wine by it’s aroma and taste and not worry if it’s been watered back. Next time I’ll address the subject of adding acid to wine.