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Adding Water to Wine

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In the whisky world, adding a small splash of water to a dram of whisky is well known to open up its bouquet and aromas.  If you ordered, say, a nip of Maker’s Mark, and added a few drops of water to open it up, no one would give you a wayward glance.  However, order a glass of nice Bordeaux wine, and add some water to it, and people will surely think you’re crazy.  Why the difference in opinion? Here’s a snippet from a recent NY Times Article:

“It’s no secret that the alcohol in drinks can get in the way of our enjoying their flavors. When alcohol makes up more than 10 to 12 percent of a liquid’s volume, we begin to notice its irritating, pungent effects in the mouth and in the nose. Spirits like whiskey and gin are 40 percent alcohol or more, and very pungent indeed.

Fans and judges of Scotch whiskies often sample their flavor by “nosing” them, or sniffing the aroma that gathers in the glass. Nosers have long known that diluting the spirit with roughly the same amount of water reduces the alcohol burn. And at the same time, strangely, amplifies the aromas.  How can water reduce one sensation and amplify another? Both alcohol and aroma molecules are volatile, meaning they evaporate from foods and drinks and are carried by the air to the odor receptors high up in the nasal cavity.

Aroma molecules are also more chemically similar to alcohol molecules than they are to water, so they tend to cling to alcohol, and are quicker to evaporate out of a drink when there’s less alcohol to cling to.  This means that the more alcoholic a drink is, the more it cloisters its aroma molecules, and the less aroma it releases into the air. Add water and there’s less alcohol to irritate and burn, and more aroma release.”

Very interesting.  In response to this, some of the folks over at thekitchn tried their hand at adding water to wine.  Here was the result:

“I decided to open up a few circa 15% abv bottles that I had been putting off opening. The results were quite interesting!

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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.”

Very curious indeed.  So next time you open up a bottle of wine, tried adding a splash of water to your glass.  You may be surprised at the result.  You can see the full NY Times article here and the thekitchn.com article here.