Just Add Water: Trying McGee’s Experiments With Wine

published Aug 5, 2010
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(Image credit: Mary Gorman-McAdams)

I read with huge interest Harold McGee’s article in last week’s Dining section of The New York Times, about how adding water to a variety of alcoholic drinks — including wine — can enhance flavor. While the theory and examples were compelling, I just had to experiment myself.

Why Add Water to Wine?

When we add water to something we usually do so to dilute rather than concentrate. The article explained how this seemingly paradoxical dilution and enhancement works when you add water to wine and other alcoholic drinks.

Read the article: To Enhance Flavor, Just Add Water at The New York Times

Harold explained that because aroma and flavor compounds have a tendency to cling to alcohol molecules, the higher the alcohol level in a wine or other alcoholic beverage the more tight and closed the aromas and flavors are likely to be, and the more pronounced the alcohol burn over the drink’s flavors.

The article went on to explain that as soon as water is added, it not just dilutes the alcohol but it also liberates the aroma and flavor compounds, thereby enhancing the taste experience.

While adding water to a top Grand Cru Burgundy or Bordeaux classed growth might seem like an aberration to many of us, the practice of diluting wine with water is centuries old, dating back to ancient times. According to a document written on Wine in the Ancient World by the ecclesiastical doctor R.A. Baker, there are innumerable examples from writers such as Homer, Plato and Pliny as well as in the Old and New Testaments detailing the practice of diluting wine with water. Wine was diluted for many reasons, which included reducing the incidence of drunkenness to rendering the water safe to drink.

Even today, there are many examples of watered-down wine. In many European countries, children are still introduced to wine in a diluted format. Plus, what are ‘Spritzers‘ and ‘Wine-Coolers’ but wines diluted with carbonated water, ice or fruit juice, to deliver lower alcohol, fruitier, and easier to drink alcoholic beverages.

Experiments in Diluting Wine

But back to Harold’s theory of water actually enhancing the flavor of higher alcohol wines. I needed to test this out, so I decided to open up a few circa 15% abv bottles that I had been putting off opening. The results were quite interesting!

The wines I opened were:
15.2% Syrah blend from Paso Robles
15.5% Syrah blend from Washington State
14.4% Syrah, Mourvèdre, Viognier blend from Western Cape, South Africa
14.7% Shiraz Reserve from Geographe, Western Australia

I first tasted the four wines in their straight undiluted form. All three reminded me why I usually avoid high alcohol wines. With each I was left with a burning sensation, and a finish cut short all too early. It was quite difficult to decipher the fruit aromas and flavors with all that alcohol volatility going on. My other comment on the undiluted wines was their high level of extraction. All four were slightly too thick in texture for my personal liking.

Next I tasted the diluted versions. Very interesting comparisons! Uniformly across all four wines, the high alcohol burn sensation on the nose completely dissipated. After about 5-10 minutes more clearly defined fruit aromas seemed to break through. Different levels of ripe jammy aromas — plums, black berries, red and black cherries — took over. So dilution definitely seems to enhance aroma in high alcohol wines. Interestingly with the South African wine, dilution also seemed to weaken the extremely pungent smokiness of the original wine.

On to the palate and flavors. As with the nose, the alcohol burn from mid palate to finish was gone. I tasted fruit flavors. However, I am not so sure I would categorically say they were enhanced. While certainly the individual flavors were more obvious and clearly defined I could also taste that the wine had been diluted. The wines all lacked a certain balance that can really only be achieved in the vineyard and through subsequent careful handling in the winery. On first taste all the wines were definitely fruitier, but this weakened and trailed off as the wine hit the back of my palate.

Over the evening I played around with different ratios of wine to water and do believe that you can find a ratio that can work reasonably well. It really all depends on why you want to dilute the wine in the first place. Curiosity? Tradition? Alcohol levels? Whatever?

Great thought provoking article by Harold and I am really interested to hear if you regularly dilute your wine and why.

Mary’s Wine Picks for This week

Meanwhile, three delicious and well-balanced wines enjoyed in our house this week were:

Mumm Cuvée Napa Rose, NV, Napa Valley, $18 – Really vibrant and deliciously dry. Crisp, with a creamy persistent mousse and lots of fresh red cherry and berry fruit. Perfect on its own, with some smoked almonds or with light seafood first courses.

2009 Gobelsburger Grüner Veltliner, Kamptal, Austria, $16 – Very classic example of Grüner. Fresh, crisp with lots of Kamptal minerality showing through. Aromas and flavors of ripe stone fruit, some citrus, savory salad notes, fresh green or wax beans and the signature subtle spicy note of cracked white pepper.

2005 Chateau Meyney, Saint-Estephe, Bordeaux, $30 – A very delicious affordable Bordeaux from a great year. Totally drinking now. Packed with ripe black berry and cassis fruit with firm supporting tannins. Well integrated toasty oak adds a nice layer of complexity.

Until next week, have fun experimenting with some wines!

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.