Water into Wine
John Andrews, writing in the latest issue of The Economist, delivers a brilliant review of the stylistic movements of the California wine industry and the technical and regulatory enabling that allows the State’s winemakers to pursue its BIG wines.
Andrews has keyed in on one particular winemaking practice that affects the grower as well as the style of California wine: watering back. Watering back is the practice of adding water to grapes that have been left on the vine to dehydrate, loosing water content but creating concentrated flavors. If water were not added back in after harvest the winemaker would wind up with wine of extraordinarily (unsellable) alcohol levels or wines that could not finish fermentations and would be sickeningly sweet.
Andrews considers this practice to be the dirty little secret of the California wine world but concludes it is very unlikely to hurt the State’s image. He’s right.
The 2004 vintage will have seen more water added back into wine than ever before due to the practice catching on as well as due to the grapes skyrocketing sugar levels that occurred after a nasty late season heat range. Even the water that was certainly used to bring the wines back into balance will not prevent many reds and whites from the North Coast of California reaching 15.5 and 16 percent alcohol levels.
Will we see any sort of backlash against high alcohol wines? I think we will. As I’ve mentioned before, by 2007 when the 2004 wines really start to dominate the market I believe we will see a number of winemaker lamenting the trend toward bigness in terms of extraction and alcohol. The media will likely follow in their path.
The Andrews article is one of the best I’ve read on the reasons for and impact of high alcohol, high extract wines from California. It’s a great contextual article too, looking at California winemaking and grape growing practices in contrast to those of other countries.