Australia's big alcohol problem
Claiming, with typical Gallish arrogance that he was the ' only one to actually talk about it', Chapoutier went on to say 'lots of winemakers do it, and I think we should make it legal and bring it out in the open. It's the future of wine ... I love to make a tasting of 2003s, adding a little water to them - they're much better.'
As he has attempted for many years to make wines in Australia, I wouldn't be surprised to discover that M. Chapoutier was triggered to speak by things he learnt here, where 'the black snake' - the water hose - has always been a key part of the sensitive winemaker's arsenal.
You'd be very hard put finding any watery flavours in any old Wendouree, no matter how far back you went. These fabulous wines are items of incredible intensity, finesse, respect and increasing value.
Among the cognoscenti, elegance and balance was always paramount. When Max Schubert wrote his recipe for Grange on the long flight back from his famous 1950 trip to Europe, he declared the fruit should be picked at between 11.5 and 12 degrees Baumé, meaning the wines would end up with those percentages of alcohol. Anybody with the incredible fortune to have tasted those 1950s Granges at around thirty years of age would not be complaining of their finesse. My favourite was the '54, perhaps the lightest of them all.
Australia is hotter than the Rhône, which M. Chapoutier says 'is too warm for Syrah.'
'Of course we don't want to reduce the alcohol by physical means,' he told Robinson. 'If you use reverse osmosis to reduce the alcohol, you sacrifice some of the aromas. When you physically concentrate the grape must, you concentrate everything - including less desirable aspects. So how about simply adding back the water lost by evaporation? ... We experimented and found that adding water did actually result in better wines.'
'There's been a trend in Australia perhaps to produce wine of a slightly lower alcohol content than might have been the case maybe, say 10 years ago,' he continued. 'This is just fashion, and I think wine makers are responding to a perceived need for producing products that are more food friendly perhaps.'
This followed feisty wine industry blogger, Dudley Brown urging on his site The Wine Rules that it would be to Australia's advantage to 'make Australia’s wine labelling rules the toughest in the world.'
'Let's say a variance of +/-0.3% of alcohol by volume instead of the current +/- 1.5%,' this former President of the McLaren Vale Winemakers wrote. 'By doing just this, we will send a message to the world that we are winemakers who take our products, and our customers’ health and education, very seriously.'
Such a move would surely push us back towards admitting the need for a bit of the old Black Snake, as M. Chapoutier thoughtfully reminds us. I'm keen to see what his former General Manager, Pierre-Henri Morel does when he comes to work at Two Hands.
But such a tightening could also push alcohols down by tax. Currently, wine is taxed via the Wine Equalisation Tax and its much rorted rebate. This levels its impost on the value of the product, not its strength. As there are constant and increasing calls to have this dumped so all booze can be taxed on the amount of alcohol it contains, by excise, as is imposed on beer and spirits, Australian drinkers could expect a very quick return to elegance and finesse.
Presuming, of course, our winemakers can remember how to achieve it.