In my last blog, I discussed our view of what constitutes ripe fruit, which means we don’t worry if sugars elevate past the "magic" number of 24.5 Brix. Because of that, we often have to add water to our fermentors to keep the alcohol levels in the finished wine at a reasonable level.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? It did to me when I first started making wine. There was no way I was EVER going to add water. NEVER, EVER. After all, who wants to dilute their wine? But once my buddy Norman Beko at Cottonwood Canyon explained the reasoning behind doing it, and I saw the results for myself, I overcame my preconceived notion.
The fact is we can’t do anything to modify the flavors of the grapes once they’re picked. So we have to wait for those flavors to develop, even if that means adding water and acid at the winery. We call it "post-harvest irrigation." I know, most of you are thinking that it must dilute the wine. How couldn’t it? If you want anecdotal evidence, the major complaint about our wines is that they’re too big. That seems to prove to me that dilution isn't an issue.
Still not convinced? Let’s take you back to your high-school math class. The volume of a sphere (the grape) is related to the cube of the radius. Don’t worry if you forgot … I had to look it up myself. When we pick riper fruit, some of the increase in Brix levels comes from the inevitable dehydration of the grapes. And no, not dehydration to the point of being raisins, as some who disparage our style would like you to think. But the grapes do often get a slight dimpling.
So, let’s assume a minimal 5 percent decrease in the diameter of the berries (and corresponding decrease in the radius). Then you would end up with an approximate 15 percent decrease in the volume. When we add water to the fermentor, we're simply replacing the water that was lost. Isn't math great!
And even if we add a bit more water than was lost, what we’ve done is add more solvent that can extract more solute from the skins. Let’s now take you back to your high-school chemistry class. A solution can only hold so much dissolved solids. One way to illustrate this is to put so much sugar in a glass of water that it doesn’t all dissolve. The water is saturated at that point. Add a little more water and more of the sugar dissolves. Did you dilute the solution? No. It’s still saturated. The same thing is happening in the fermentor.
We also acidify as needed to compensate for the added water, as well as for lower acid levels due to riper fruit. If you pick fruit at more than 26 Brix to get the desired flavors, you usually end up with lower acid levels, except in very rare cases. We add as much tartaric acid as necessary to have our wines finish in the 3.5 to 3.6 pH range. Not only do we like the structure that that provides the wine, it also allows us to have stable wine at reasonable SO2 levels. We don’t have a problem with adding acid since we view it as a supporting cast member--flavor is the star.
Since I started making wine back in 1999, my world view has changed from "Why would you ever add water and acid?" to "Why wouldn’t you add water and acid?" Some people have commented to me that adding water and/or acid is somehow unethical, immoral or (my favorite) "cheating."
All I can say to them is if adding some water or acid makes a better product, why not do it? Of course, I know that "better" is totally subjective. But why would you accept something that was less than perfect by your standards if you could correct it? Especially when all you’re doing is adjusting the amount of something that’s already in the grapes.
I understand the desire to attain perfection in the vineyard every year, but I’ve rarely if ever seen it. And just for the record, I’m rarely perfect either!
Randell Phalp — Lenexa, KS — October 10, 2006 11:28am ET
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