06 Sep Truth in Wine: Water into Wine
I don’t know why, but lately a whole lot of folks have asked me that question. Is it true that wine was watered down in ancient Israel because the wine was stronger back then? Not having been around back in those days, I can’t speak with 100% certainty. But I’m feeling pretty confident that I can answer correctly.
First, the facts: When we speak about a wine’s strength, we typically are talking about its alcohol content. The higher the alcohol, the stronger the wine. Alcohol content in wine is directly linked to the amount of natural sugar present in grapes when they are harvested. The riper the grapes, the higher the sugar content. The higher the sugar content, the higher the alcohol. It’s a simple equation.
Ripeness depends on two things:
1) Seasonal conditions during the growing season are key. Sun exposure and warm temperatures increase sugar content in grapes. This is why grapes in warmer regions like Napa Valley tend to have more sugar than grapes grown in cooler regions such as Germany’s Mosel Valley.
2) The winemaker’s decision regarding when to pick is also critical. Winemakers have varying opinions about when grapes are ready to harvest. Some of us prefer higher sugars, which yield more powerful, full-bodied wines; and others prefer to pick earlier when the grapes are lower in sugar, to make lighter, more delicate wines.
How grape sugar is converted to alcohol (or wine):
Either way, yeast convert grape sugar into alcohol. This can occur spontaneously through the action of “natural,” indigenous yeasts; or by commercial yeast strains that are added to grape juice through human intervention. (At Covenant Winery, we prefer indigenous yeast.) Some yeast convert sugar more efficiently to alcohol than other yeast. But the basics haven’t changed over the millennia. Grapes ripen and are picked. Then yeast convert the sugar in the grape juice to alcohol, thus producing wine.
Ripe grapes—depending on where they grow and seasonal conditions—will contain enough sugar to produce about 10% to 15% alcohol wines. Less alcohol than 10% would mean the wine probably did not ferment fully. (It might be sweet or simply unripe.) More than 15% alcohol in a fermenting wine is generally toxic to yeast. At this point, they stop converting sugar to alcohol.
These are the normal basics for yeast and wine today; and they were also normal for yeast and wine in early Israel some 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. Grape physiology has simply not changed dramatically since wine was first crafted in the Middle East. And neither has the way we ferment wine.
So what about water in wine?
Back in the old days, clean water for drinking was not so easy to come by. Alcohol, a natural disinfectant, can reduce microbial activity in water. As a result, it was common for Romans, Greeks and Jews—among other wine-drinking cultures–to drink a mix of 50% water and 50% wine. Not only did it clean up the water, but it also prevented people from getting drunk. After all, wine was commonly drunk for breakfast, lunch and dinner!
I don’t believe the 50/50 blend was necessarily standard procedure for those who wished to enjoy a real glass of wine though. They included the Priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, who used only the best wines for sacramental occasions. And most likely, they also included early wine aficionados everywhere who would no sooner water down a great wine than we would today. (Were the wines great back then? Some were, most surely. But that’s a subject for another occasion.)
However, for everyday drinking, wine and water were the perfect blend. If they had access to wine, most ancient peoples probably drank it—with or without water—with most meals. And now that we have access to clean water, we just don’t need to add it to our wine.
Wine every day?
I’m not recommending a glass of wine with breakfast. But wine certainly enhances lunch and dinner! And yes, it’s more fun to make a toast with wine than water. I also find that a glass (or two) of wine improves every meal. That’s how we drink at our home and at our winery. It’s a lesson to learn from our ancestors. Wine is not only for Shabbat or Kiddush…. or holidays. It’s for every day, in moderation of course!
Vintner Jeff Morgan is the co-owner of Covenant Winery, in California and Israel. He’s also the author of nine books on food and wine and a former wine journalist.