Water in to wine

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.

Heavy wine  Punching above its’ weight?

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.

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There’s no bad wine……?

Talking to a Master of Wine (MW) a while back, I mentioned that recently I had tasted a wine that I could only describe as horrible. His retort still sticks with me – “There are no bad wines, just wines that you wouldn’t buy”. It’s actually quite a sound statement – a wine may not to be to my liking, but there will be merit in there somewhere, be it identifying that the producer has cut corners using oak chips, or they’ve picked the grapes too early.  Good critique should be along these lines as opposed to a simple like/dislike.

With this in mind, I have been mulling over an article that was published last month in various media outlets (Google 75% Wine Based Drinks for a selection), exposing what essentially amounted to rogue wines being sold in supermarkets alongside normal wine. Cue a certain amount of shock/horror along with cries that someone somewhere (be it the supermarkets, the producers) were trying to get one over on us. The exposé originated from online supermarket sommelier wotwine? who are a team of wine experts (including several MWs) who taste through wines sold in supermarkets to give advice on what to buy. This is a good website, given the sheer volume of wine available in our combined supermarkets.

During their regular tastings some wines were noted as ‘lacking genuine character and dilute’. On closer inspection they noticed that some were actually subtlety described on the back label as being ‘wine based drinks’ (WBDs) – in other words, only 75% of the drink was actually wine, topped up with either grape juice or, more likely, water. And yet here they were, in similar shaped bottles, adorned by labels that made them look every inch like a wine, on the same shelves as all the other bottles. I definitely agree that it was a good call by wotwine? to bring these bottles up for debate, but find myself disagreeing, or certainly thinking that they were being unfair to these WBDs, and I’ll explain why.

Within a supermarket environment, strangely my whole attitude to wine changes. I watch food & wine matching sections on programmes like Saturday Kitchen and think “yes, this afternoon I’m going to rummage around my local store and pick up 6 really cool bottles” but when I get there, without fail I always slip in to supermarket mode. I become less the wine lover picking out select bottles and immediately flip to someone looking for bargains – weekday wines, being drawn (albeit consciously) to the little red labels that denote discounts or offers, looking at the bin-ends and maybe being a little daunted (or time conscious) by the aisles of wine available. Something about that supermarket environment just seems to focus my mentality to how I buy food or household goods, or how-much-other-stuff-could-I-buy-for-the-same-price logic, rather than the luxury, spontaneity, and indulgence in a merchant. I go there to buy supermarket wine, and my expectations are set accordingly.

The focus of concern in the article centred on two issues  – firstly, that the wine shouldn’t be on the shelves with normal wine as it was a pale imitation, and secondly, that it generally tasted foul. Indeed wotwine? were quoted as saying they wouldn’t pay a penny for it. Regarding its placing on the shelf, I offer a similar example – supermarket own Cola. These cheaper products sit on the shelves alongside market leaders Pepsi and Coke, but there is no call to segregate these less intense products, even though the taste of own brand cola is streets away from them. It’s not that the own brands are not real cola or that they are bad (many people are happy with them).  There’s just some cola you wouldn’t regularly buy.

Invariably it comes down to either brand and/or price, and that’s no different to these WBDs. Most supermarkets split wine sections in to red/white, and then in to country of origin. That’s it. When shopping (for example) in the Australian reds section, if you want something lighter in alcohol (unusual for Oz as the sun fully ripens the grapes), and are looking in the budget range of £4.50 per bottle (as these WBDs are), what’s the point in having them split away somewhere else? The customer makes the choice as to what they want.

To move on to the quality of the wine itself, there was no other way for me to decide other than to seek out a bottle for myself. I opted for the Australian ‘Copper’ red wine, 12.5% abv from Sainsbury’s. The pricing is a worry – £4.50 per bottle is entry level, but this was priced at £6.25 a bottle – only available for £4.50 when buying 2 for £9. At £6.25 we’re well in to my tried-and-trusted everyday wine drinking price bracket, and you can get more for your money.

In colour it looked no different to any other youthful red. On the nose it was sweet confectionate black cherry and sweet spices, some vanilla and, more worryingly, something that smelt like furniture polish. The palate hits straight away with upfront cherry, but dissipates fairly immediately, leaving a hollow middle. Any length is solely sustained by cloying sugars. In its favour it does have good acidity. My review generally concurs with wotwine? who list it as ‘sweet’ and ‘thin’, but it is still a wine (12.5% abv) albeit a little suspect at the recommended price point

I don’t agree though that the supermarkets are to blame for tricking customers in to buying it, or that it’s undrinkable. In the end the proof will of course be in the sales figures, but it was not a wine I would recommend to others, or buy again.

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