Food & Travel

Feb 17, 2014

Putting water into wine (and why that cheeky red is boozier than you think)

The rising heat is roasting our reds and pushing the alcohol content higher. So is adding water to wine -- currently banned -- the answer? Wine writer Philip White makes the case at In Daily.

Have you ever wondered why all the red wine in Australia is 14.5% alcohol? Don’t. Because it’s not. It just says that on the labels. In reality, many wines claiming that 14.5 figure are actually 16%. In making their alcohol claims, Australian winemakers are permitted an error margin of 1.5% either side of the number they nominate. So when you see red admitting to 16%, it could actually be 17.5%. This is not good sense during a wowser uprising like we currently endure internationally. Alcohol numbers crept steadily upwards through the late 1990s and beyond, as Australian red makers strove to please the ridiculously influential US wine critic Robert Parker Jr. He recommended a few strong wines and eventually gave some of them his perfect score of 100/100. Envious Ocker redsters wrongly thought these wines had won the impossible number simply because their alcohol was high, so they began leaving their shiraz on the vines a bit longer, and up crept the strength, usually at the expense of delicacy and gastronomic art. Put simply, winemakers began selling us bottles of highly alcoholic jam and forgot how to make wines of balance and finesse. Assisted by global warming, this fad eventually spread worldwide. Even the French saw their alcohols soar in the blistering 2003 vintage, the hottest in 500 years, when 14,802 people died of heat, and Bordeaux reds were suddenly as fashionably alcoholic as the Ocker fruitbombs the Bordelaise had hitherto derided. In recent times, both the average consumer and the cognoscenti, the merchant and the sommelier, have tired of this and generally demand a return to elegance and finesse. But to achieve this, an entire generation of winemaking graduates seem to find it much easier to simply claim the alcohol is 1.5% lower than they know it to be. If earth has a scribe you could call the opposite of the semi-retired Parker, that’d be Jancis Robinson, the British expert. Robinson raised a few hackles recently when she repeated leading Rhone winemaker and industry kingpin Michel Chapoutier’s suggestion that the solution to this soaring alcohol was to add water to the wines:
"The southern Rhone is too warm for Syrah. Of course we don’t want to reduce the alcohol by physical means. If you use reverse osmosis to reduce the alcohol, you sacrifice some of the aromas. When you physically concentrate the grape must, you concentrate everything -- including less desirable aspects. So how about simply adding back the water lost by evaporation? If you harvest on the basis of the ripeness of tannins in Grenache you risk having wines at 15.5% or 16% alcohol at least. We experimented and found that adding water did actually result in better wines."
Claiming, with typical Gallish arrogance, that he was the "only one to actually talk about it", Chapoutier went on to say:
"... lots of winemakers do it, and I think we should make it legal and bring it out in the open. It’s the future of wine … I love to make a tasting of 2003s, adding a little water to them -- they’re much better."
As he has attempted for many years to make wines in Australia, which is hotter than the Rhone, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover Chapoutier was triggered to speak by things he learnt here, where "the black snake" -- the water hose -- has always been a key part of the sensitive winemaker’s arsenal. How we let the snake slither from our official public memory is not simply the result of the Parkerilla fashion. In Australia, like France, the addition of water to grape must is illegal. Given all this, it shouldn’t be. When the late Mick Knappstein addressed the throng at the centennial anniversary of the revered Wendouree winery in Clare in 1995, he reminded us that the former winemaker there, Roly Birks, also deceased, was:
"... a very honest winemaker, in as much as you knew what he did. You’d see on the head of his vats … so many buckets of Mataro, so many buckets of Shiraz, or even Malbec. He blended his wines at the crusher … It always had at the head of the vats what the additions were. If the grapes were very ripe it would say how much water went in. Now you know, not many winemakers would do that … He was honest!"
You’d be hard put finding any watery flavours in any old Wendouree, no matter how far back you went. These fabulous wines are items of incredible intensity, longevity, finesse and increasing value.
"Among the cognoscenti, elegance and balance was always paramount."
Among the cognoscenti, elegance and balance was always paramount. When Max Schubert wrote his recipe for Grange on the long flight back from his famous 1950 trip to Europe, he declared the fruit should be picked at between 11.5 and 12 degrees Baume, meaning the wines would end up with those percentages of alcohol. Anybody with the incredible fortune to have tasted those 1950s Granges at around 30 years of age would not be complaining of their finesse. My favourite was the ’54, perhaps the lightest of them all. Professor Julian Alston, a wine economist from the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine Economics at the University of California, was here last week discussing the same topic, quoting data from Ontario’s Liquor Control Board, which includes some 80,000 observations from 20 vintages. He reports a 10% rise in wine alcohol, internationally, and suggested Australia should consider this, especially given the flexibility in the margin of error most Australian winemakers take advantage of. Typically, Steve Guy, regulation manager for Wine Australia, dismissed this claim when quizzed by the ABC’s Matthew Doran. Despite the increasing tendency to claim alcohols are lower than they actually are, Guy retorted:
"We certainly haven’t seen evidence of that, and really see no motivation for wine producers to use the tolerance in such a fashion … I think it’s a recognition that wine is a natural product, and from year to year, the same vineyard can produce wine of differing alcohol depending on the climate that year ... "There’s been a trend in Australia perhaps to produce wine of a slightly lower alcohol content than might have been the case maybe, say 10 years ago. This is just fashion, and I think winemakers are responding to a perceived need for producing products that are more food-friendly, perhaps."
This followed feisty wine industry blogger Dudley Brown urging on his site The Wine Rules that it would be to Australia’s advantage to make our wine labelling rules "the toughest in the world". The former president of the McLaren Vale Winemakers wrote:
"Let’s say a variance of +/-0.3% of alcohol by volume instead of the current +/- 1.5%. By doing just this, we will send a message to the world that we are winemakers who take our products, and our customers’ health and education, very seriously."
Such a move would surely push us back towards admitting the need for a bit of the old black snake, as Chapoutier thoughtfully reminds us. But it could also push alcohols down by tax. Currently, wine is taxed via the Wine Equalisation Tax and its much rorted rebate. This levels its impost on the value of the product, not its strength. As there are constant and increasing calls to have this dumped so all booze can be taxed on the amount of alcohol it contains, by excise, as is imposed on beer and spirits, Australian drinkers could expect a very quick return to elegance and finesse. Presuming, of course, our winemakers can remember how to achieve it, or learn how to do it without going to jail. If we were more open about it, those who know how best to apply the black snake could explain it to others without fear of prosecution. *This article was originally published at InDaily

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12 thoughts on “Putting water into wine (and why that cheeky red is boozier than you think)

  1. paddy

    Dear Crikey, for this fascinating article on wine…I’ll *almost* forgive today’s lack of Firstdog.
    More please.

  2. Venise Alstergren

    It’s not just red wine either. My favourite tipple-Chardonnay-is becoming fourteen plus percent. So much so that I’ve taken to adding fifty to a hundred percent of mineral water to get it down. I refuse to give up without a fight.

  3. Paracleet

    I was under the impression you couldn’t get wine much over 14% alcohol without the use of special yeasts (I.E. Sugar is not the limiting factor). I’m also not sure the plus or minus value applies equally at the ends of the spectrum. I.E a wine at 11% may be +/- 1.5% but not one at 10% or 14.5%
    16% is either fortified or made using yeasts used in the production of fortified wine.

    Note: I could wrong

  4. zut alors

    Perhaps the consumer could circumvent the politics and practicalities of winemaking legislation by adding the water themselves.

    I recall, at lunch on a hot day, seeing an ice block added to a glass of red. Someone please pass Philip White the smelling salts.

  5. AR

    re my current favourite “highly alcoholic jam” – marquis Philips eagle headed roo 77 Grenache, how can I be sure that the plus/minus accuracy doesn’t go tuther way?
    Has anyone noticed that it is rare to see the alcohol content of the pics of wine bottles in the full page ads, almost as if photoshopped out for the wowser brigade coz they are there on the bottle in the shop in the usual position in the bottom corner.
    Perhaps someone learned what happened in the olde Dart in the 80s when the supamart started selling hi-hit lagers and legislation was passed to ensure the alcohol content was clearly marked. It just ensured that real sots & toppers knew which to spend their pennies on, such as the drunk character in VIZ (forgotten his name) who could always be relied upon to be shitfaced half way through the strip.

  6. Simon Hoyle

    Sorry to be a pendant, but when Mr White says “Australian winemakers are permitted an error margin of 1.5% either side of the number they nominate”, does he mean 1.5 per cent or 1.5 percentage points? It’s an important distinction. A 1.5 percentage point margin of error would indeed lead to the range he suggests; but a 1.5 per cent margin of error would mean a wine claiming to be 14.5 per cent could be as much as 14.72 per cent, or as little as 14.28 per cent.

  7. AR

    oops, too far into my M-P already, the comment above was not meant to be BOLD.

  8. AR

    Where would we be without WIKI –
    Eight Ace – an alcoholic who drinks “Ace” beer (eight cans for £1.49) and struggles to stay on the right side of his wife and many children as a consequence. Many of the strips involve Ace being entrusted with or somehow managing to acquire exactly £1.49 which he inevitably uses to buy “Eight Ace”. His real name has been mentioned as ‘Octavius Federidge Tinsworthy Ace’, the ‘Federidge’ in his name being derived from the now-defunct Federation Brewery which brewed ‘Ace’ lager.

  9. Decca

    @Simon Hoyle. 1.5% in points. i.e. Listed 14.5 could possibly be actual 16.0.

  10. michael r james

    Paracleet at 4:52 pm

    Barrel fermented and aged wines end up concentrating the alcohol beyond what the yeast manage, by evaporation. (Well that is what the winemakers say. I am a little surprised because I might have expected the more volatile alcohol would have evaporated off at a higher rate than the water. Apparently not.)

    You’re thinking of champagne which does it in the bottle (and “artificially” by adding extra sugar to get a secondary fermentation).

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