TCS Daily

Water Into Whine

By Stephen Bainbridge - June 13, 2005 12:00 AM

The Economist recently revealed one of the California wine industry's most closely guarded secrets; namely, the growing practice of adding water to the fermentation mix:

... much of [California's] wine output is "watered back" -- or, dare one say, watered down. In other words, that fine cabernet or shiraz may have been produced with a judicious addition of water. Cue, one might assume, for consumer outrage, wine-buff alarm and -- surely in litigious America -- a raft of criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits.

In fact, this is much ado about nothing.

Winemakers around the world routinely intervene in the fermentation process in hopes of creating a better product. In France, for example, winemakers for centuries have used a process known as chaptalization, which is the addition of fermentable materials -- including cane sugar! -- to the fermentation mix. Adding more sugar to the must raises the brix level, resulting in a higher alcohol concentration in the finished wine. According to

Chaptalization is practiced when grapes do not fully ripen. This most commonly happens in cool weather regions like France or because of poor growing seasons. Moreover, if the year has had an insufficient number of sunny days to achieve mature grape ripening or when there has been an excess of rain. When used properly, chaptalization allows the production of full, rich wines with sufficient alcohol levels to give them balance. (Link)

Likewise, in many countries, winemakers are allowed to acidify their wines. Again, when the growing season produces grapes lacking the natural acids necessary to produce a balanced wine, a judicious acidification produces a better product.

And I haven't even mentioned post-fermentation processes like fining and filtration, with are the subject of rabid controversy.

But what about adding water to the fermentation must? This has a long history too. Back in the days before refrigeration made it possible to precisely control the temperature of the must, a fermentation that ran too hot risked becoming "stuck." To cool down an over-heating must, winemakers would toss blocks of ice into the fermentation vessel.

The French now ban the addition of water to the must, on grounds that it would allow winemakers to sell water at wine prices, which seems fair enough in view of France's long (and still going) history of problems with wine fraud. Given the wine glut in the EU, moreover, anything that increases the volume of wine produced is a real problem. In California, however, it is legal to do so, but only for limited purposes. According to

State regulations allow adding water "to facilitate fermentation." The intent is to avoid technical disasters from occurring during the winemaking process, most specifically what is known as "stuck fermentation," in which the sugars in the juice do not convert to alcohol. The amount of water and whether it is necessary to add it are left entirely to the discretion of the winemaker. (Link)

And there's the sticking point, so to speak. Neither California nor the federal regulators are supervising this aspect of winemaking. As a result, or so one hears through the grapevine, lots of California winemakers are deciding that they need to exercise their discretion to add water, even if there is no real risk of the fermentation sticking.

Why? I blame Robert Parker. We all know Parker's ratings have an enormous influence on wine prices. (There's even a well-known economic analysis proving the existence of a "Parker effect" on pricing.) We all also know that Parker has very definite preferences. As a review in the London Review of Books put it:

Parker's critics have disputed not the accuracy of his palate but the kinds of wine he likes and which he tells his disciples they should like: lots of ripe fruit, lots of alcohol, lots of oak, wine that tastes 'hedonistic' even when young. (Link)

Producing such wines requires grapes with full physiological maturity. Growing such grapes requires long hang times, which results in very ripe grapes with a lot of sugar. High brix levels at harvest translate into high degrees of alcohol. High alcohol concentrations are a problem for two reasons. First, high alcohol levels can throw a wine out of balance, especially by making the wine taste "hot." Second, federal taxes are lower on table wines, which are defined as having an alcohol content of no more than 14%.

Winemakers could stop the fermentation of high sugar content musts either by adding brandy (which is what port producers do) or sterile filtering the wine to remove yeasts and bacteria. Either step results in residual sugar, however, which also can throw a wine out of balance. Sterile filtration also allegedly strips out desirable flavor molecules. Winemakers could allow the fermentation to go to completion and then partially dealcoholize the wine using a spinning cone or cold filtration, but both processes are expensive and seem to deflavorize the wine. Besides which, Parker HATES filtration (and acidification and fining), so using these techniques would defeat the very purpose of the whole enterprise.

Winemakers have discovered that they can reduce the sugar concentration (and thus lower the final alcohol level) by judiciously adding water without unduly diluting the flavor compounds generated in fully ripened grapes. Which is why doing so has become California's little secret.

Is it a "dirty" secret? In my view, the right answer is: "it depends." There are some wine critics and drinkers who insist on minimal intervention in both the vineyard and the winery. Others have embraced the industrialization of winemaking as a positive good. In their very fine guide to winemaking, for example, Hugh Johnson and James Halliday famously chastised anti-interventionist wine importer Kermit Lynch, claiming that: "The truth is that a good fifty percent of those artisan burgundies and Rhones [Lynch loves] are bacterial time bombs." Hence, they strongly supported such highly interventionist practices as sterile filtration.

My own view is somewhere in the middle. Overuse of any interventionist technique can result in an out-of-balance wine stripped of flavor. If a talented winemaker can improve the product through judicious use of interventionist techniques, however, more power to him/her. Adding a neutral agent like water strikes me as about as minimalist an intervention as one can imagine; certainly far less susceptible of abuse than adding sugar or acid.

As regular readers of my wine blog know, moreover, my own palate is skewed against high alcohol wines. (Port is an exception, of course, largely because the high residual sugar level seems to balance out the high alcohol content.) A high alcohol wine that tastes hot -- that burning sensation you get on the finish and the nose -- loses a lot of points in my ratings. So for my palatal preferences, judicious watering back seems perfectly reasonable.

But, as the proverb goes, De gustibus non est disputandum.

Steve Bainbridge is a UCLA law professor, blogger, and aspiring wine critic.


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