Tabletop Chemistry

BY Dan Berger TIMEMay 20, 2022 PRINT

You’re browsing the wine aisle in your local supermarket or wine shop and see a bottle that looks interesting. And the back label carries purple prose about how superb the wine’s fruit is.

But not all wine label text is accurate. What if the “dramatic fruit” the label says really refers to prunes? We all have bought wines that don’t appeal to us. What then?

Buying wines that fail to deliver what we want is a sad scenario. It happened to me not long ago with a $30 bottle of syrah. Although it wasn’t very good, I resorted to an old trick, which saved the day and the wine.

The problem was that it was a little high in alcohol, so it burned the mouth and throat and was slightly sweet from an alcohol level that tasted like it was close to 16%. (The label said 14.5%.)

So, I added about a tablespoon of spring water to our glasses. Voila! Both problems faded.

Purists might be aghast at the notion of doctoring our wine, but we weren’t about to drink it the way it was. This solved two problems. It didn’t alter the wine’s aroma, other than to make it fruitier.

A word of caution: take care when using tap water, which may contain chlorine that will change wine negatively. The same with ice cubes, a strategy that works especially well on hot days.

Putting chocolate sauce into your cabernet is a bit radical, to be sure, but adding a little water isn’t very invasive.

Decades ago, I knew a woman who added a little sugar to her bone-dry white wine from France and she was happy with the result. And there are other tabletop chemistry ideas here as well.

For the last 60 years or so, a drink from France called Kir has been a popular aperitif, especially when a white wine is too tart. The wine gets a tiny dose (emphasis on the word “tiny”) of either creme de cassis or blackberry liqueur, or occasionally some other fruit-flavored brandy.

This same tactic also works to enliven the neutral taste of inexpensive, ordinary sparkling wines. Such drinks are called Kir Royale.

And what to do when a wine is too soft and lacking in acid? Each of us differs in the way we perceive acid and sugar. And it’s easy to determine if a wine is right for our palates: just take a sip. If the wine seems flabby, another trick we often use is to add a tiny bit of citric acid to our glasses, to help wines that lack the proper acidity.

Citric acid may be bought from canning suppliers. A quarter teaspoon of citric acid stirred into a four-ounce glass won’t change the aroma or taste of a wine, but will make it a bit crisper, allowing it to work better with food.

Also, some restaurants serve red wines far too warm, so we often ask for an ice bucket. The idea is not to chill the wine, just to get it closer to the “cellar temperature” that’s more appropriate for proper enjoyment.

I’ve often been chided by waiters, who think I’m a heathen for wanting my red wine “chilled,” but it’s they who are wrong to tell me what I should do with the wine I’m buying, usually at their inflated prices.

A final tip: a winemaker friend once told me that when he encounters a sauvignon blanc with no particular aroma, he adds “a drop of Tabasco,” he said. “But not two. That’s usually too much.”

Wine of the Week: 2020 Terzini Pecorino, Abruzzo ($15) — This delightful light, crisp dry white wine from Italy is made from a grape variety that sounds very much like the cheese that’s spelled the same way. Instead, it’s a grape that offers beautiful hints of white peach and minerals and has elegance and charm with only 13.5% alcohol and no oak contact. It is crisp enough to work with seafood, in particular shellfish.


Dan Berger
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