Funny old things grapes. As they ripen, sugar levels rise, acids fall and flavours develop – although not necessarily in sync. Typically the sugars evolve more quickly than the flavours. Higher sugar means higher alcohol. So if you pick the grapes at the correct sugar/alcohol level then the wine may lack flavour. If you let the grapes hang to develop fuller flavours, you will have excessive alcohol.
This problem has been exacerbated by climate change. Some winelands have become considerably hotter than before. Grapes are developing high sugars very quickly and no-one wants excessive alcohol in their wine.
So what to do?
The free-thinking, oft-quoted, Rhône Ranger Michel Chapoutier has a shocking idea.
He recognises that climate change has caused excessive alcohol in the Rhône – as elsewhere. He wants to rebalance the wines by ‘rehydration’. There are 3 principal ways of reducing alcohol in wine, but the easiest is adding water. In fact, the practice of ‘baptising the wine’ has been used in the past – albeit fraudulently – to ensure wines pass their accreditation with the correct(ed) alcohol level. So there are historical (and biblical) precedents for ‘water into wine’. Parents commonly watered down wine for their children to drink. Everyone knows: more water, less alcohol.
Michel Chapoutier reasons that, as a result of global warming, his grapes transpire water. He would like to add that water back into the wine made from those grapes at a later stage. He recalls that the ‘hyper concentrated’ 2003 vintage was much improved by adding a little water to the glass. Ice cubes will do. Perhaps the Rock’n’Rhône festival will have ‘Red on the Rocks’?
Of course ALL grapes in all vineyards transpire water. Vineyards are hot. They have to be to ripen the grapes in the first place. Its just that grapes in the now hotter vineyards lose a bit more water as the vines try and cool themselves down.
At present, watering down wine in the winery is illegal. Many will feel that wine is not a cocktail requiring a mixer. Adding something – be it water or other flavouring – feels like cheating. The wine loses its cherished authenticity and sense of place.
That said, grape juice is 85% water. If people can pop and ice cube in their glass of wine, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why the winemaker add water to it?
Undeniably wine consumption in France is falling, partly because of rising alcohol. The consumer dislikes it. Reducing alcohol may help stem the tide. After all, the world has embraced Rosé on the Rocks and even Frosé, so a Red on ice is not inconceivable. Traditionalists are likely to see red, but it might take off.
I can’t see it becoming a fine wine trend though.