Legalising the black snake

Karien O'Kennedy - 23 Feb 2018


Aussies may legally add water to grape juice to reduce sugar levels to approximately 24°Brix. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) approved the addition of water pre-fermentation to assist fermentation. Clause 7C of Standard 4.5.1 – Wine production requirements Australia, in terms of fermentation facilitation, states:

“Water may be added to wine, sparkling wine and fortified wine to facilitate fermentation if the water is added to dilute the high sugar grape must prior to fermentation and does not dilute the must below 13.5 degrees Bé.”

This code only applies to Australia since high sugar musts are not a regular occurrence in New Zealand. The purpose of the law is to reduce the number of stuck fermentations caused by high sugar musts and the resultant financial and wine quality losses. Water addition pre-fermentation is also legal in the USA and addition is allowed to lower sugar content to as low as 22°Brix.

The question is however, where does this leave one if you want to export wine to the European Union (EU)? The USA has a bilateral wine trade agreement with the EU that “does not allow the addition of water beyond technical necessity.”  In terms of the EU provisions for adding water during wine production the legislation states:

“All authorised oenological practices shall exclude the addition of water, except where required on account of a specific technical necessity.”

The “specific technical necessities” that can arise during winemaking are not specified in the EU legislation and therefore the addition of water pre-fermentation viewed by the Yanks as technically necessary, is allowed by their bilateral trade agreement.

Australia, New Zealand, USA, Argentina, Canada, Chile, South Africa and Brazil form part of the World Wine Trade Group (WWTG) that agreed in 2001 with a Mutual Acceptance Agreement to accept the winemaking practices of other parties. Even though a specific practice may not be legal in a country, it will accept wines for import from the country where it is legal. Australia will therefore under this agreement be able to export its water-added wines to at least all the WWTG countries. It is unclear at this stage how the new code will affect exports to the EU.

The Winetech Scan recently reported on research conducted in Australia where grape juice was substituted pre-fermentation with either wine with a 4.5% alcohol produced from green harvested grapes, or water. The results were very positive for wine quality and further research was done (not yet published) on adding water instead of substituting must with water. Information on this research can be obtained from:

As for South Africa, the IGWS and Winetech have taken notice of these developments and will start to engage with industry with regards to possibilities in SA. For the moment the black snake (KTM) is not a legal option to reduce the occurrence of stuck fermentations, or to produce lower alcohol wines in our cellars.

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