Wine & Spirits
Water Into Wine
Vintners Weigh in on a Trick of the Trade
Adding water to wine may sound like a practice designed to increase production and cheat the consumer. But increasing numbers of top-notch California winemakers believe that a little water, added to the grapes before they start fermenting, will actually improve their wine.
“Anybody who tells you that they’ve never done it is lying,” says Jeff Cohn, owner/winemaker at JC Cellars in Oakland. “There are years when you don’t have to do it,” Cohn says, but he acknowledges that sometimes “we’ll have to add a little water—not much.”
The practice of adding water—or “watering back”—is something many vintners haven’t wanted to talk about. A couple of years ago, The Economist called it the California wine industry’s “dirty little secret.” Cohn and other local vintners are fairly candid on the subject. These producers of high-end wines say that a little water can be a useful tool when, for example, a heat spike at this time of year, near harvest, quickly pushes up sugar levels in the grapes.
“Mother Nature will throw us curveballs,” says Tracey Brandt of A Donkey and Goat winery in Berkeley. She says that while watering back isn’t a “regular winemaking practice for us,” sometimes it’s necessary in order to make a balanced wine.
In the past, most grapes were picked when they reached a certain sugar content. Now, many winemakers say they look for “physiological maturity.” They want full, rich flavors, and for the seeds to turn brown so they won’t impart green tannins to the wine. That often translates to super-ripe grapes. “The sugars get up there before the flavors do,” Cohn says.
Extreme ripeness means high alcohol content in the wine. Alcohol levels have been climbing in California. Thirty years ago, Cabernet Sauvignon used to check in at 12.5 percent alcohol in most years. Now, many Cabs are well over 14 or even 15 percent. Most winemakers have learned to live with higher alcohol levels, but some try to make adjustments, either to make a more balanced wine (wines with too much alcohol can taste harsh and clumsy) or because wines over 14 percent alcohol are subjected to additional federal tax.
There are other, high-tech means, such as reverse osmosis and the spinning cone column, to reduce alcohol in a finished wine. But a simple method of decreasing potential alcohol is adding water when the grapes go into the fermenter. Very ripe grapes are often a little dehydrated; 8 adding water, winemakers reason, simply replaces moisture that was lost when the grapes shriveled. A Pinot Noir maker I know calls the practice “post-harvest irrigation.” When water addition is done judiciously, most consumers would be hard-pressed to identify a wine that’s been watered back.
It can be difficult to ferment extremely ripe grapes into a dry wine, because as alcohol levels build, the yeast responsible for fermentation starts to die. That can result in what’s known as a “stuck fermentation.” For that reason, adding a little water is permitted in California, but the rules allow for “no water in excess of the minimum amount necessary to facilitate normal fermentation.” Still, that leaves winemakers a lot of wiggle room. Some winemakers around the state have reported adding as much as 15 to 20 percent water by volume to certain fermentation lots.
Some wine producers in the state have simply built watering back (or the more high-tech methods) into their winemaking procedures. They go for the big flavors, knowing that they can fix any alcohol problems down the line.
But the vintners I talked to say they prefer to use such methods only as a last resort. Mike Dashe of Dashe Cellars in Oakland says he’s added water now and then and even resorted to reverse osmosis a couple of times. But he thinks such steps usually can be avoided if he stays on top of when to pick the grapes. “I try to head things off in the vineyard rather than fix mistakes at the winery,” he says.