In my modest but fairly sizeable wine rack sit 6 bottles which I’m not touching. This isn’t because they are rare vintages, are valuable, or even because they need ageing to reach their peak.
No, it’s simply because they contain 15% alcohol and having had a bottle or two before I found it to be too overpowering. I do like a ‘big’ red wine and subscribe with Laithwaites to receive their ‘Big Reds’ mixed case, but the clue to the huge body is in the name of the wine. ‘The Heavyweight’ is a blockbuster Shiraz from South Australia and packs a punch that (judging by the reviews online) is loved and loathed in equal measure.
Occasionally this particular bottle pops in to a mixed case, and when I forget to replace it, adds to my growing collection. I started thinking of gifting the bottles, but with the high level of alcohol I felt it would need to go to a serious wine lover rather than slipped in to the mix at a party. If I couldn’t vouch for the wine though, how would I be able to pass it off to a friend?
I was interested to read a letter in this months’ Decanter magazine from a Professor Herbert who clearly has a similar problem. I must admit that I had never considered his solution of adding water to a wine to dilute the alcohol (indeed, in an upcoming review, I’m even baffled by a red wine meant to be served over ice cubes). The idea of watering down wine seems almost an abomination of all the hard work that the producer has put in, and it was only a few months ago that I wrote about the outrage caused by ‘Wine Based Drinks’ where exactly this practice was happening (in this case by the winery, rather than at home). My split-second shock and disdain was quickly transformed in to one of absolute curiosity. Could this be the answer I was looking for?
Professor Herbert makes mention of an article in the New York Times which talks about the effects of dilution across a range of beverages from Cocktails to Coffee. Adding water to high alcohol spirits is an accepted norm, and when doing the tasting exams for Spirits at the WSET you need to dilute them with water. This isn’t merely to stop you getting hilariously drunk in the exam, but is because the dilution effect of the water can bring out subtler tastes and aromas that you may not notice through the alcohol burn (which will occur in any alcoholic beverage with an abv of more than about 14%).
As always the best way is to find out for yourself, and so I popped to my wine rack and picked out the Heavyweight for a taste test.
The unadulterated wine was a youthful vibrant purple indicating a clean and fruit forward wine, with a clear view of the tears in the glass highlighting the alcohol level. The nose was of deep dark red cherry with jammy notes (from the high alcohol), a biting spice, and also floral notes, particularly vanilla. The palate was an initial huge warm fruit-bomb explosion, but then with nowhere else to go I was left with a hollow mid-palate. In addition, the initial fruit explosion meant that the palate quickly dissipated and I registered the length as medium (mostly made up of a sickly sweet taste and warmth from alcohol, as opposed to fruit). To be fair to this wine, I think it may have needed food (it is Australian, so a BBQ may not have been far from mind when creating the blend), but I tried both versions without.
For the second tasting I decanted the bottle contents with an additional 20% mineral water (Evian), taking the abv down by the same 20%, ergo 15% down to 12%. The colour of the wine was still a youthful purple with less visible tears and the rim clearly now water-white. The nose, instead of a fruit bomb, was more restrained with more tertiary characteristics coming through. In place of the overt fruit I was hit by black cherry mocha, cigar smoke and older spices (a varied combination) blending in to a warm whole. The palate was very smooth, if still a little sweet, but without the fruit bomb the length became at least twice as long and all about the warmth of the tertiary characters instead of the hit of primary fruit. Like the first wine the acidity is refreshing and carries the wine through the palate, and both had a hint of finer-grained tannins in the mix.
There’s no doubt that this is a well-made wine, but there is something fundamentally smoother and longer lasting about this ‘watered-down’ example, and something which pushes back the overt jammy fruits and draws towards tertiary characters of coffee, chocolate and wood. With a rising number of wines clocking in at more than the traditional norm of 12.5%, perhaps now is a good time to get familiar with the potential of adding water to wine?
My response to Professor Herbert can be found in the August 2015 edition of Decanter magazine.