Adding Water to Wine? The Art (?) of Dilution

GrapevineIn previous columns, I explored the intertwined history of wine and water. Throughout ancient times it was a common practice to dilute wine with copious amounts of water in order to reduce the level of alcohol and to diffuse the off-putting aroma and taste of the inferior quality of wine produced in those times.

In modern times, water has taken on a contradictory persona. On the one hand, it is loathed as a dilutive agent that spoils the essence of a wine. On the other hand, it is added during the winemaking process by a number of winemakers to produce an acceptable product low in alcohol.

I received several responses on my reporting of this phenomenon. The ones that intrigued me the most were the self-confessions of readers who have practiced the art of dilution.

Readers admitted to adding club soda or ice cubes to their favorite quaffing wines. They also offered additional insights into the use of water that I had not mentioned due to lack of space in my column.

I felt a column focusing on these consumer practices was warranted. If you have additional experiences you would like to share, send them to my e-mail address.

  1. For first-generation children of Western European immigrants, wine was an integral part of most weeknight dinners and every Sunday marathon feast. How many of you were offered wine diluted by water or soda at an early age? This was a generations-old practice brought to the United States, considered a simple way to share the experience of a traditional “old country” meal with the entire family. In addition, it gradually introduced children to a mealtime beverage considered a healthy component of the Mediterranean diet.
  1. Remember the first time you raided mom and dad’s wine or liquor cabinet? They would never notice a few ounces missing from a bottle of wine or vodka/gin/scotch. Remember the first time you were caught and then devised the foolproof method of adding an equal amount of water to replace the alcohol you had consumed? Diluted wine or alcohol tasted the same to a teenager. Remember when your parents tossed the diluted bottles in the trash after they next tasted the contents of the bottles? Remember you could never again find any bottles of alcohol anywhere in the house, or the key to the new locking device they may have placed on the wine and liquor cabinets?
  1. Who would have thought that adding a bit of water to liquor would be de rigueur as an adult? The first time I ordered a single malt scotch and was offered a splash of water with it, I cringed. I was finally able to afford a rather expensive, and envied, whiskey. Why would I want it diluted? A wise bartender informed me that adding water to scotch is rooted in science.

His insights: High levels of alcohol overpower aromas, and therefore our olfactory senses. Adding water accelerates the evaporation of alcohol molecules and releases the aroma molecules attached to them.

As I sniffed and tasted the diluted single malt, I felt less of a burning sensation (fewer alcoholic molecules) and more of the aroma (more aromatic molecules wafting up from the glass). I’ve ordered my single malts with a side (not a splash) of water ever since, which allows me to add water incrementally to match my particular palate.

Having received these inputs from readers, I now confess to the following:

  1. As a youth, I was served wine at home mixed with ginger ale before graduating to wine mixed with 7UP lemon-lime soda.
  2. As a young adult, of legal age, I ordered “top-shelf” scotch with club soda because it (and therefore, I) was cool to do so.
  3. In the eighties, my go-to summer drink was Sangria – watered down with club soda.

But I never stooped to diluting the vodka in the bottle I drank from in my parents’ liquor cabinet.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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