by Tim Atkin

Turning water into wine

Someone once described the BBC as the “least worst” television service in the world, an opinion which remains valid while the licence fee continues to exist. The quote reminded me of a discussion that’s taking place in the wine world about alcohol levels at the moment. If you agree that excessive alcohol is a bad thing — I’m talking about 14.5% and above here for most wine styles — and that climate change is exacerbating the problem , then what’s the best, or rather least worst, response?

The current situation in Europe is that, apart from picking earlier or planting in cooler or higher places, the only option open to producers who want to reduce alcohol levels is to use a spinning cone or reverse osmosis. In theory, these are experimental techniques, but they are widely employed by people who have sufficient cash.

Both are extremely useful if you want to produce softer, riper, more approachable wines without the impression of heat on the palate. Picking later, one of the key winemaking trends of the last 20 years, means you get physiological ripeness as well as sugar ripeness, but the latter can get out of hand. If it does, the technology is there to help — at the push of a button.

One future possibility is the development of genetically modified yeasts that convert sugar to alcohol at a lower rate, but given the widespread opposition to GMOS in Europe, typified by the recent attack on a vineyard at the French Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA) by 60 protesters near Colmar, this seems unlikely.

Actually, there’s another solution but it’s almost as controversial as GMOs. I’m talking about the addition of water to must. The practice is illegal in the EU and, as far as I know, in every other part of the world, but is more widespread than you might imagine. When I did a vintage in California in the 1990s, the winemaker gave me a hose and told me to point it a vat of fermenting must. “You see that spot on the cap,” he said. “It’s filthy. Keep cleaning it with water until I tell you to stop.”

Australians, too, traditionally made frequent use of what they variously termed “the long black snake”, “neutral dry white” or “grape free extract”. But the practice is rarer these days, especially among companies who export their wines to the EU. “The Germans are particularly hot on testing wines to see if water has been added,” one Aussie winemaker confirms, “so you’d be mad to do it.” That may be but, given the drought conditions of the last few years and the on-going effects of climate change, adding water to wine may soon be back in fashion.

Does this explain the proposal by Wine Cellars South Africa (a group that represents most of the co-operatives and big volume producers to the Wine & Spirit Board) to legalise just such a thing? The reaction to the proposal has been one of outrage in official EU quarters, but is the controlled addition of water to must any worse than using a spinning cone? After all, there is already a 3% tolerance for water when it’s used to dissolve bentonite and other chemicals.

It’s hard to disagree with AndrĂ© Morgenthal, communications manager of Wines of South Africa (WOSA), who argues that it’s a “softer manipulation”. He says that if the proposal is ratified next year, and that’s a huge if, the process will be “carried out under very strict conditions” and will be restricted to a maximum of 15% of the volume of the must.

Even if it secures the support of the entire Cape wine industry, the measure will be rejected if the South African government fails to establish a bi-lateral agreement with the European Union. “If the EU says no,” Morgenthal adds, “it won’t swing.” It’s easy to understand why. Roughly 80% of South Africa’s wine exports are to the EU and it wouldn’t want to jeopardise that.

The South African proposal deserves to be taken seriously by the EU and by the wine trade, too. It should be part of a broader discussion, not only about reducing alcohol levels to meet the growing consumer demand for lighter-bodied wines, but also about additives in general.

We all know that a little learning can be dangerous — scare stories about the addition of fish bladders are all too easy to write. But wine is a natural product, give or take the addition of fining agents, sulphur dioxide, oak chips and (sometimes) tartaric and/or malic acid, and water is part of that. Greater transparency, supported by ingredient listing, should be beneficial, not a threat.

Adding water to must in legally controlled amounts to improve the balance of the finished wine should be regarded as part of the winemaking process, not as cheating. After all, water already makes up more than 80% of the volume of every wine we drink. Can someone please tell the EU?

Originally published in Off Licence News

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