Non-Grape Winemaking: The Concentration of Flavour Debate

dilution and high juice concentration musts

©Copyright Ben Rotter 2001-2008

The most revered grape wines in the world possess both highly concentrated flavour and well balanced palates. This leads me to believe that concentration of flavour is a valuable and sort-after quality in wine (outside of my own tastes). Yet most non-grape ("fruit") winemakers dilute juice or add large amounts of water to musts. There is almost a vacuum of information concerning wines produced using a lot of fruit. Instead, there is a flood of recipes which dilute the source ingredients, and often dilute them heavily. In some cases, the dilution is so heavy that a re-acidification of the must is required.

Why is the convention to dilute?

Reasons and Refutations

There exist several personal reasons why significant dilution might have become convention, including:

(1) Financial limitations (lots of juice means buying lots of fruit) and geographical limitations (the availability of fruit) contribute to the scarcity of high end must juice concentrations (or 100%) fruit wines.

(2) Flavour concentration is a matter of taste and some winemakers prefer light bodied, light flavoured wines (these wines do have their place for every wine drinker).

But surely the majority of winemakers are not so constrained as to never/rarely produce a wine using a lot of fruit, and surely concentrated flavours are also sought after? These concentrated wines have their place, just as lighter styles do.

Further to taste and financial/geographical limitations, there are valid vinification-based reasons behind diluting. These includ:

(1) When using fruit with low juice content, water is required to obtain significant volumes.
Ingredients such as flowers require the addition of water. However, a wine made using blueberries as a primary ingredient may still be made at 100% juice. Most fruit winemakers use low quantities of fruit in these cases (simply viewing recipes on the internet proves the point - see Further Information below for examples). When using fruit with a low juice yield, high quantities of fruit may still be used (for e.g., 900 grams/litre (8 lbs/US gal.) of blueberries instead of 200 grams/litre (1.5 lbs/US gal.)). This will clearly increase flavour concentration.

(2) Some fruits contain highly acidic or tannic juice, for example raspberries and elderberries. Dilution is practised to obtain better balance.
Many recipes dilute fruit juices so heavily that re-acidification is required! (See "Examples of heavily diluted musts" below.) However, in many cases partial dilution is required. Since diluting such fruit juices reduces not only acidity but all other components (including aroma and flavour), the minimum dilution necessary to obtain desirable acid balance may be practised.
Further, dilution is not the only remedy for high acid (or high tannin) musts. Numerous measures can be taken to alleviate these problems such as chemical or bacterial deacidification, fruit/wine blending, fining (for tannin), and/or better fruit selection. Indeed, these techniques may even be practised in parallel with partial dilution.

Further to these, some winemakers who advocate dilution in most wines have argued the following:

(1) Some fruit winemakers suggest there is a tolerance threshold for concentration of fruit, a limit to flavour intensity. A classic to quote is raspberry, whose aromas and flavours (it is claimed) are too powerful to use in high concentration in a wine. Those holding this philosophy claim the resulting wine is undrinkable. The author disputes this, holding up for example the 100% wines that many people have appreciated (see Further Information below for examples).

(2) Some fruit winemakers claim dilution is required for a non-grape wine to attain it's "wine" or "vinous" character. They claim that non-grape wines with high juice concentrations taste more like alcoholic fruit juice than wine. In the author's opinion, this is no the case: concentrated fruit wine doesn't taste like alcoholic fruit juice, just as concentrated grape wine doesn't taste like alcoholic grape juice - it is wine, not juice with alcohol added.

Important influencing factors
This importance of fruit quality and balance cannot be stressed enough with regards to making wines with high concentrations of juice. A winemaker cannot make a wine with a high concentration of juice and expect a pleasing/quality outcome without considering these issues.

Fruit quality
The concentration of fruit flavour within the fruit itself is obviously an important factor, and thus fruit quality is a highly significant factor when discussing flavour concentration (a peach from one region, let alone single site, will most definitely have a different flavour profile and flavour concentration from a peach somewhere else). Still, the general argument of quantity of fruit used being proportionate to flavour concentration still holds (the more fruit used, the more concentrated the flavour). Since most fruit is grown for eating and not winemaking, fruit quality is a serious issue which requires further investigation.

Balance between fruit concentration, sweetness, acidity, body, tannin, and alcohol must be taken into account when considering balance. Wines with higher fruit concentration should neither lack backbone, nor have excessive acidity. Is is common in this ongoing debate for winemakers to claim that concentrated wines are impossible to enjoy, when the wines they've made have actually been out of balance. Such wines should possess the body and tannic structure to support and balance their higher weight of fruit. Perhaps most importantly, they should not have excessive acidity for their style. Winemakers cannot expect to consistently produce drinkable/desirable wines at high juice concentrations without seriously considering these issues.

Further Information

Successful 100% wines
Quoted in rec.crafts.winemaking threads:
"Chokecherry from 100% juice"
"Re: pure strawberry wine plans"
"follow up to pineapple wine and the fruit winemaking culture"
Riveside International Wine Competition gold award for 100% red raspberry (in thread "Re: even more questions about fruit wines ")

Fruit Winemaking Quarterly magazine (website) quotes:
FWQ's 1997 Best of Show Fruit Wine Award to Jim Allen's boysenberry
Earle Estates Meadery's (N.Y., USA) high end blueberry

Poteet Winery, Texas, USA sell 100% strawberry (& blackberry)

Examples of heavily diluted musts
Note that recipes marked with * are so diluted that the must requires re-acidification.

Blueberry wine (1)* at The Winemaking Home Page calls for 240 g/l of fruit. Note also that acid is added to increase the TA by almost 2 g/l - this is common in most of the recipes listed below.
A 100% juice must would require around 3300 g/l (nearly 14 times as much).
Bilberry wine* at The Winemaking Home Page calls for 480 g/l fruit. This is double the amount for the blueberry above (which makes sense since bilberries yield less juice) but a 100% must would still require nearly 7 times as much fruit.

Elderberry wine at The Home Winemaking Page calls for 300 g/l.
Elderberry Wine (1)* at The Winemaking Home Page calls for 360 g/l, as does Roger Simmonds' Homemade Wine
A 100% juice must would require around 1400-3300 g/l (depending on the juiciness of the berries), between 5 and 11 times as much fruit.

C.J.J.Berry's ("First Steps in Winemaking") strawberry wine recipe* calls for 440 g/l.
Strawberry Wine* at Paul's World calls for 215 g/l.
Strawberry wine (1)* at The Winemaking Home Page calls for 240 g/l.
A 100% juice must would require around 2000 g/l (more than 8 times as much as these website recipes use).
Strawberry wine* at Roger Simmonds' Homemade Wine calls for 480 g/l (100% requires more than 4 times as much fruit).

Peach wine
Peach wine* at The Amateur Winemakers Resource Page calls for 300 g/l.
A 100% juice must would require around 2000 g/l (almost 7 times as much).

C.J.J.Berry's ("First Steps in Winemaking") raspberry wine recipe calls for 390 g/l.
Raspberry wine(1)* at Roger Simmonds' Homemade Wine calls for 480 g/l.
A 100% juice must would require around 2000 g/l (more than 4-5 times as much).