Maybe you knew it already, and like me, have in several occasions surreptitiously dropped an ice cube in your glass of 14%+ alcohol Merlot and found the resulting drink more palatable.
I thought that the wine tasted better because it was a few degrees cooler but according to Harold McGee's latest Curious Cook column, water is actually an ingredient that can enhance flavors.
That may seem counterintuitive: water has no flavor and by adding water, you dilute instead of concentrate flavors. But what McGee found out is that water, by diluting the other ingredients, can change their balance for the better.
This is how it works in high-alcoholic drinks:
“Both alcohol and aroma molecules are volatile,” explains McGee, “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.”
In case of high-alcohol wines, “flavor chemists have found that high alcohol levels accentuate a wine's bitterness, reduce its apparent acidity and diminish the release of most aroma molecules. Alcohol particularly holds down fruity and floral aromas, so the aroma that's left is mainly woody, herbaceous and vegetal.”
So next time your glass is filled with some big, bold Zinfandel, don't worry about what others will think. Add water, the wine will taste more fruity, more balanced, more pleasant, and you will know why.
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