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Your Glass of Wine May Have a Water Additive

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GrapevineWine is a natural gift that exemplifies the beauty and wonder of the balance of nature. As a fruit of the gods, it evolves through its interdependencies with the land – and humankind. It is often said that 90 percent of a wine is made in the vineyard and 10 percent in the winery, a testament to man’s respect of nature and humble appreciation of its mastery.

For millennia, wine has been revered for its many qualities: as a life-sustaining liquid, an elixir and a social lubricant. Today, winemakers and consumers have the same high regard for wine and consider the traditional growing and production techniques employed in its creation to be sacrosanct.

However, to a certain extent this may be perception over reality. From adulterating wine with additives to diluting it with liquids, man has interfered with the balance of nature. One of these dilutive adulterations is especially revealing and is the theme of this week’s column.

In ancient times, the inhabitants of Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire consumed wine as an integral component of their diet. However, it was not the quality product it is today. Crudely grown and vinified, but appealing for its alcohol (as an inebriant), water was added to tame the wine’s bitterness and off-flavors (typically in a ratio of two to three portions of water to one portion of wine).

This was an acceptable and preferred practice and had a desired side effect: more socially responsible, sober imbibers. This ancient practice faded out over time as winemaking techniques improved and consumer palates became more selective.

There is a holdover. The rite of adding several drops of water to wine was practiced by Jesus as a custom of his time. That custom was embraced by the Catholic Church as a symbol of the Last Supper at Passover, and continues today to symbolize the human aspect of Christ’s time on Earth.

Today, modern winemakers produce wine in its natural state and for its intrinsic qualities, which would be abhorrent to alter in any way, especially dilution with water. In addition, regulations exist to prevent such practices.

Well, kinda, sorta.

Surprisingly, wine dilution practices still exist in small pockets across the wine producing world.

Where? California, for one.

Americans tend to like their wines more fruit forward and less acidic than many of their European counterparts. Therefore, a number of winemakers let grapes mature and ripen as long as possible to build up higher concentrations of flavor and sugars in grapes. However, this extended “hang-time” invariably will reduce the volume of water in grapes (leading to potential dehydration) and increase the level of alcohol in fermented wine juice.

The presence of additional alcohol may counteract the natural aroma and flavor of a wine. Consumers’ olfactory senses are influenced by the chemistry of alcohol. If alcohol levels are excessive, the natural characteristics of a wine may be out of balance; our sense of smell and taste could become compromised.

In California, regulators permit the limited addition of “Jesus units” (a term for water, referencing his miracle of transforming water into wine at the Marriage at Cana). Presumably, the intent is to 1) compensate for the loss of water in overly ripened (dehydrated) grapes by adding volume to them and 2) lower the level of alcohol to keep it in balance with the natural profile of the wine. Proponents argue minor dilution actually enhances the aromas and flavor of certain wines.

It is not clear how widespread this practice is, or the amount of water added. As you might expect, winemakers who follow this legally acceptable – some say desirable – procedure are reluctant to disclose it publicly.

At times, there is a fine line between tradition and modernity – and between adulteration and conscientious dilution. After thousands of years of winemaking and consumption, these issues are still relevant.

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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