One of the more remarkable things about wine is the reverence that people seem to have for it. And I don’t just mean among geeks; you see this in people with no special relationship to wine. Even among novice wine drinkers, there is the idea that there is something rather special about this ancient and noble beverage, that it merits special handling and that there are some things that are simply not done.
I think I first had this thought in a great pub in Greenfield Massachusetts called the People’s Pint where I found myself one night, alone and with an evening to kill. I was seated at the bar and watching as the barman routinely pulled beer from more than one tap into a single glass—effectively mixing two or more beers together to make a new one of his own creation. It occurred to me that this would never happen with wine. But why is that? It seems that beer is something it’s okay to play with—but wine is just too serious for that sort of thing. There are rules! Wine must be respected!
I agree that wine should be respected, but there are some things you can only learn about wine by playing—perhaps experimenting is a better word—with it. In the years that Chris and I have been recording these radio wine segments, we’ve added lemon juice to white wine in various doses to discover how higher concentrations of acidity affect the way wine presents itself. We’ve also mixed one wine with another to get a sense of how and to what purpose winemakers create blends. We’ve tried tasting wine out of opaque black glasses—in which color can’t be perceived — to gauge how our tasting apparatus is informed (or misinformed) by what our eyes lead us to expect.
This reluctance to experiment is even more strange when you consider that winemakers do it all the time. They’re forever tinkering with ways to make their wine more as they think it should be; in some cases with simple low tech maneuvers, in others with serious engineering. But what about the rest of us? Couldn’t we be allowed a play date or two with our wine?
I remember back in the 1980’s buying the late Marcella Hazan’s first cookbook in which she famously said that the secret ingredient of all savvy cooks was . . . water. And went on to explain how adding a bit here and there would balance a sauce or bring it to the right consistency. It was a lesson I never forgot and use all the time in my own cooking. What most people don’t know is that water is also a secret ingredient in winemaking and that in California, water is routinely added (or taken away) to adjust alcohol levels and manipulate concentration.
This reluctance to experiment is even more strange when you consider that winemakers do it all the time.
We don’t have the equipment at home to take water out of wine, but adding very small amounts of water in measured amounts and tasting the results can give quite a clear idea of why winemakers resort to this trick and how adjusting concentration and alcohol levels in this way directly determines how wine behaves when it hits your palate.
So, in a recent segment I poured Chris three glasses of a California red wine I knew to be both massively concentrated and high in alcohol. It’s not the kind of wine I like to drink. It’s simply too powerful to be a congenial guest at the table. Perhaps an application of the Marcella Hazan principle would make something more companionable of it?
Chris had no notion of what I had been up to with the wine. I just asked him to taste each one and tell me which he liked best and which he thought would be more pleasant to drink with a meal. The first glass contained the full strength wine. To the second, I had previously added one quarter teaspoon of water. To the third, one half a teaspoon. If you heard the segment, you know that Chris thought the first (unwatered) glass the least appealing of the three — just too intense. He enjoyed the second, but chose the third glass as the most table friendly. Let’s check the numbers and see what we actually did.
One 3 ounce pour (89 milliliters) with 15.4% of alcohol by volume (ABV) delivers 13.7ml of ethanol. Adding one quarter teaspoon water decreased the ABV to 15%; adding one half teaspoon dropped the level to 14.8% ABV; adding one and half teaspoons resulted in 14.6% ABV.
It’s interesting to note that we haven’t actually changed the amount of alcohol (13.7ml) in the second and third glasses since we didn’t remove any alcohol. But in each case where we added water, alcohol as a percentage of volume was decreased. The same amount of alcohol is present in all three glasses, but the addition of water lowers the percentage relative to the volume.
Each addition of water also adjusted the overall concentration and “body” of the wine, so that it made a distinctly different impact on the palate. Of course, determining what concentration is right will always be a function of the context (season; weather; time of day) in which the wine is poured and individual taste—a matter for informed judgment.
You may be surprised to learn that for most of history, wine was routinely adjusted with additions of water to suit the time and place where it was consumed. In the highly ritualized ancient Greek drinking bout known as the symposium, the first task was to identify one person to act as a master of ceremonies and his (it was a males only event) first official act as overseer of the festivities was to determine the ratio of water to be mixed into the wine in the great bowl from which rounds were successively served out.
It was Dionysos, the story goes, who first taught men to rationalize their drinking in this way. Drinking wine “neat” was something for uncultured barbarians, not civilized men.
So, you see, adding a bit of water to your wine has an impeccable pedigree, and there’s no reason to refrain from making an adjustment of this sort if you feel that the occasion warrants.
And if anyone objects, just tell him Dionysos himself said it was just fine.
Stephen Meuse can be reached at email@example.com