Watery wine

Water and wine is a complex topic in many ways – from irrigation to straightforward dilution. With some alarm I recently read in a Neil Pendock article that addition of water to wine is now legal in South Africa.

I hadn’t seen anything about this. Early last year – to the great relief of those who care about South African wine – it was announced that the proposals to allow such dilution had been abandoned (presumably they came from the Wine and Spirit Board, always the champions of high quality). Sadly, the plans were not dropped for the best reasons, but basically because Europe clearly would not allow imports of diluted Cape wine. (They allow it from the USA, but then the Americans are somewhat bigger and stronger than we are and can force better bilateral agreements.)

Anyway, I had no need to be alarmed and depressed, as the article’s claim was simply incorrect, as a bit of easy fact-checking revealed. No change to the law.

Sadly there’s not much doubt the the practice happens anyway, primarily as a way of bring down the alcohol levels of wine made from over-ripe (shrivelled) grapes – as well as to illegally increase volumes. But it doesn’t happen legally in South Africa. You can de-alcoholise with expensive technology, but not with water.

Coincidentally, the same week as I checked these facts, I was alerted (by Francois Haasbroek, Waterford winemaker and one of the most wine-alert people around) to a related international development. The International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) has adopted new definitions of low-alcohol and de-alcoholized wines, as reported in an article carried here by Wine Searcher.

The article, by Diana Goodman, comments that “The move by the OIV comes amid a rise in the popularity of low-alcohol wines” and a wish to reduce alcohol levels. She mentions that “Conetech, a California-based company which specializes in ‘alcohol adjustment,’ says it treats six million gallons of wine annually from around 600 clients. It also has plants in Chile, Spain, France and South Africa, with Australia soon to follow.” (When last did you notice a local producer proudly mentioning its contract with Conetech?)

At a recent OIV general assembly, various resolutions were adopted to give guidance to the OIV’s members (not including the USA, but including South Africa – at an annual cost of 45 000 Euros, I believe!). Alcohol reduction is allowed with a maximum reduction of 20% of the original alcohol level. The actual alcohol content of wine cannot (normally) be less than 8.5% vol. The OIV (as I understand it from Ms Goodman’s report) does not contemplate adding water, presumably because it is anyway illegal in Europe, but speaks about various permitted “separative techniques” – basically, the use of spinning cones  for partial vacuum evaporation, reverse osmosis and other “membrane techniques”, and distillation.

Says Ms Goodman: “The organization is currently working on definitions for wines that have “gone through an alcohol reduction of more than 20% but do still respect the minimum alcohol level for wine and special wine.”

So there you have it. Both locally and internationally, be on your guard if you decide to dilute that dreadful and highly alcoholic juice from wrinkled merlot or shiraz. If you’re a winemaker under the same misapprehension as at least one journalist, take note that you’d better keep quiet about it – and be grateful that the techniques for discovering your ignorance or dishonesty are expensive and rarely carried out.

As to other aspects of water in wine – especially the use of a precious and endangered resource for copiously irrigating vines for high yields in areas where, almost by definition, they shouldn’t be growing in our wine-glutted country and world – well, some other time.

Incidentally, artificially low alcohol wines are normally pretty grim. Naturally achieved, they are often very green (picked unripe before the sugars accumulate) and/or sweet (not allowing all the sugar to convert to alcohol). I would guess that the modest alcohol level in the Robertson Extra Light Merlot 2011 (just over 9%) was achieved technologically. It’s not entirely awful, but it’s moving in that direction. The aromas are even quite pleasant – with a ripe fruit character, which is why I suspect technology. And to drink, the wine is certainly light, but rather insipid, lean and dry, with a weedy edge to it and little evidence of fruit – presumably lost to technology. Why would anyone drink such stuff I wonder (especially at R46!)? Personally, I’d much rather drink water.

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