Water in wine, wine in plastic?

There have been some fascinating recent changes to the welter of South African legislation governing the making and selling of wine. The first hasn’t fully happened yet, but is perhaps the most interesting of them and one that will delight many wine-producers: water will become a permitted additive for wine for the first time!

Actually, when a few years ago it became legal to reduce the alcohol levels in certified wine, there was a bit of grumbling that only various expensive high-tech methods were allowed (like spinning cones and reverse osmosis). Not dilution. (By the way, I’ve been accused before of naiviety in relation to the rectitude of winemakers, but I have little doubt that adding water to wine has been done for a long time: there’s even a nice euphemism available, referring to the “long black snake” in cellars – the hosepipe.)

In fact, while the best winemakers look to solve problems like high alcohol levels in the vineyards rather than through low- or high-tech tricks in the cellar, many argued at the time that, quite apart from the expense of the allowed methods, a bit of dilution might well be a better alternative from the quality point of view. Depending on how its done, it’s arguable that dilution can be done for quality rather than quantity reasons – but no producer is going to do anything other than smile at the prospect of, if not turning water into wine, then getting close to that famous trick.

All the rules related to the new permission have not yet been made clear. This is how the urbane André Matthee, Director of Regulatory Services for the Wine and Spirit Board puts it in the notice he sent out to producers and others:

“Pending further directions from the administering officer of the Liquor Products Act and the Wine and Spirit Board, water will be able to be added to certified wine for the correction of moisture losses in grapes. We will let you have above-mentioned directions as soon as they become available.”

Don’t you love that “correction of moisture losses”? I’ve never met André, but he has been unfailingly helpful and courteous in response to my many emailed requests for help over the years, and I hope  there was a little sardonic smile as he wrote that phrase. What he’s really referring to is producers who’ve left their grapes hanging on the vine to get fashionably ultra-ripe flavours and tannin softness for so long that they’ve dried out a bit (the grapes that is, not the producers). Now the “lost moisture” can be replaced (subject to certain rules – oh yes, of course!) by running the hose into the tank.

In America, where they particularly love euphemisms, and the practice of dilution became legal a few years back, it’s also called “rehydration” or “breaking back”.

Here’s a toast to naturally balanced wines.



The busy old Wine and Spirit Board have also agreed to permit the use of a kind of plastic, polyethylene terephthalate – better known as PET, for wine bottles, including for certified wine. Such bottles are gaining a “green” cachet around the world, as the opposite of those appalling, macho wrist-breaking bottles that producers of expensive wines seem to feel obliged to use to help convince gullible purchasers that their often overpriced stuff is worth it. As the helpful André Matthee tells us, “glass wine bottles of 750ml capacity weigh about 400g while the PET bottles weigh only 50g, bringing vast savings in local and export transport costs”. They are also recyclable.

Whether they will catch on here or elsewhere is another matter. Someone who knows was telling me just the other day that they have been something of a damp squib, so far, even in environmentally-conscious Canada. But they are being introduced all round the world now.

Backsberg, probably the local winery with the purest environmental conscience, and the first local one to achieve carbon-neutral status, has just launched wines in this new packaging. And who could argue against owner Michael Back’s statement: “Whether by measurable process or by intuitive approach, every step we take in producing our wines must be challenged. The packaging and transport of wine contributes significantly to our carbon footprint and therefore needs to be addressed.” The Tread Lightly range will be available in Pick ‘n Pay supermarkets any time now – a Merlot at R49 and a Sauvignon Blanc at R39.

PET is not an entirely uncontroversial packaging, despite the green connotations, and certainly not suitable for keeping wine for any length of time – that’s why, as for all non-glass containers, the filling date will have to be indicated on the bottle. You can read more about the pros and cons of PET, offered in a vastly more informed way than I could manage, on the useful Wine Anorak website of wine-and-science boffin Jamie Goode. Just click here.

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