This may be the subject of a future rant, but the only people who seem to really
dislike high alcohol wines are some super high-end wine geeks, some winemakers,
and the wine journalism establishment (many of whom I think secretly like those
wines but are now being pressured into saying they don't).
Here in the USA the future is called The Young Winos of LA, and if you read this you just might believe that they will change the world of wine.
An excerpt: The Millennials popped onto the wine industry radar in 2003 as drinkers remarkably different than those of previous generations. They like to learn through experience, by drinking instead of reading or tracking point scores from big-name critics such as Robert Parker. They glean information through Internet search engines rather than from books, magazines and newsletters aimed at people who aspire to be collectors. "They don't go for any of the folderol," Gillespie says.
The statistics bear that out, he says. Of the wine purchased by the 70 million Americans ages 21 to 30, 40% is imported. That purchasing tendency has been credited with pushing the rate of growth in sales of imported wines ahead of domestic wines, Gillespie says. Gen-Xers (the 45 million people ages 31 to 44) buy imported wines 32% of the time, whereas imports account for only 26% of wine purchased by 77 million baby boomers.
The alcohol debate resurfaced this morning in my copy of the San Diego Union Tribune. Much of the information in the article is old news. But it, again, raised the question in my mind of just how many wines have high alcohol? According to some we seem to drowning in high alcohol wines. Are we?
Its not a simple question to answer. First you have to define high alcohol; I’m not going to go into the speculation about how or why alcohol levels have been increasing over the last few decades. Some would argue that anything over 12.5% is extreme. Others, like Darrell Corti, put the limit at 14.5%. For me there is no cut-off level. I agree with my wife, who after looking at the article in the Union Tribune said, “Isn’t it simply a matter of whether the wine tastes good?”
Second, once you have set your limit you need to start counting wines. However most of the critics of increasing alcohol don’t seem to do this. Instead they simply note that average alcohol levels have been increasing (usually over the last few decades). But I’d like to see some real numbers. Are we (actually it really should just be you) up to our butts in high alcohol wines? Our chests? Our heads? Or are they just nibbling at our ankles? Well again it depends on your definition but fortunately we can get an idea by using the numbers in a recent post by Alan Goldfarb on Appellation America. Goldfarb wrote "At the recently concluded ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) annual Zin Drench at Fort Mason in San Francisco, an informal survey by this reporter of about 140 wines revealed some startling statistics. Of the approximately 140 presented at the event exclusively for the press, 54 Zinfandels stated on their labels that they contained alcohol levels of 14 to 14.5 percent. Another 11 listed their alcohol content as less than 14 percent. That’s an astonishing 46 percent of wines that have relatively low levels of alcohol in a varietal category that consistently registers alcohol percentages to the 15 to 16 plus mark. (For the record, five of those 140 wines indeed had stated alcohol numbers of 16 to 16.9 percent - yikes!)"
So how drenched in alcoholic Zins are you? If you are Darrell Corti your about up to your waist because 46% (65 of the 140 wines) were 14.5% or less. If you draw the line at 16% then you only have a few ankle biters to worry about because about 4% were 16% and above. But if you draw the line below 14%, like Randy Dunn, then you better start swimming because 92% (129/140) of the wines were higher than your definition. Me? I’m on dry land enjoying the view. There is no way I’m going to drown over the alcohol in wine. And neither should you.
Drowning image Copyright 2008 iStock International Inc.
The previous post links to an article in which researchers show that two drinks may not be all that good for your heart. The health effects of drinking wine have always been a little contentious because excess consumption does have serious health consequences and yet moderate levels of alcohol have been shown to have significant benefits. But what is moderate consumption?
In Australia the guidelines to limit health and social risks suggest that:
Men should drink no more than 4 standard drinks a day, on average
And never more than 6 standard drinks in one day.
Women should drink no more than 2 standard drinks a day, on average
And never more than 4 standard drinks in one day.
Everyone should have 1 or 2 alcohol-free days every week.
In the USA the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, drinking in moderation is defined as having no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men. This definition is referring to the amount consumed on any single day and is not intended as an average over several days.
Moreover heavy drinking, in men, is typically defined as consuming an average of more than 2 drinks per day. For women, heavy drinking is typically defined as consuming an average of more than 1 drink per day.
So the interpretation of moderate alcohol consumption can vary between countries, but what about the definition of a standard drink? According to the International Center for Alcohol Policies “Official “drinks” or “units” generally contain between 8 and 14 grams of pure ethanol, although the measure varies among countries", and they are not kidding! For example in the UK its 7.9 grams of alcohol (by weight) while in Japan its 19.75 grams. That is a 2.5 fold difference. And that is reflected in the drinking guidelines for the same countries.
What is the take home message? Its quite simple. When you see a report proclaiming the good (or bad) health effects of wine (or alcohol) consumption make sure you check how much alcohol (weight or volume) was involved. Don’t just rely on information about how many drinks are recommended.
UPDATE February 19, 2008: Dr Spaak has confirmed that the calculation used to determine the alcohol content was in error (see below).
Canadian researchers have come up with data showing that, unlike one drink, two drinks significantly increases several measures of heart function. Seems about right, I know two glasses of a good wine will increase my heart rate! Although I never find myself all that stressed about it. I wonder why? Should we take this research at face value?
The amount of wine ingested was adjusted for body weight and sex so that one glass (155 ml, or 5.2 oz) of wine with 12% alcohol content given to a 68-kg man equaled 18.6 g of ethanol; the wine was a Wolf Blass 2001 pinot noir (1). The first drink was ingested over 5 min, and the second when blood alcohol had fallen to 25–30 mg/dl. Based on Figure 1 in the study it looks as though both drinks were consumed within one hour. Consuming two drinks in an hour is probably reasonable but one in 5 min is pretty quick, at least for me.
Another problem is the amount of alcohol given. Their own statement argues that they consider one drink to contain 18.6 grams of ethanol. Not only is this high but it seems to be an error brought about by confusing the alcohol content by volume rather than weight. If calculated on a volume per volume basis then 155 ml of a 12% (ABV) wine equals 18.6 mls of alcohol, but not 18.6 grams of alcohol as alcohol (ethanol) is lighter than water (density of ethyl alcohol is 0.789g/ml). So one drink (155 ml of a 12% ABV wine) contains 14.7 grams of alcohol, and two drinks contains 29.4 grams.
In Australia a standard drink is 10 grams of alcohol (calculated using the density of ethyl alcohol as 0.789). In the USA one standard drink is 13.7 grams of alcohol. So the study subjects getting two drinks or 37.2 grams of alcohol consumed 3.7 standard Australian drinks and 2.7 standard USA drinks. If they consumed 29.4 grams then they consumed 2.9 standard Aussie drinks and 2.1 standard USA drinks.
If the authors of the study have made an error in calculation (and its possible that the error only exists in the figure legend) then their study still has relevance. Its all a matter of what you define as a standard drink. I’d also like to know if you really need to drink that first glass in five minutes to get arterial dilation?
1) The verbatim quote from part of the legend to Figure 1 is as follows “The first dose (dose 1) of wine or ethanol in the present study was adjusted for body weight and sex to reflect 1 glass (155 ml, or 5.2 oz) of wine with 12% alcohol content given a 68-kg man, which equals 18.6 g of ethanol.”
A large explosion at Drayton Family Wines has killed two people and severely injured a third. Among those killed was Trevor Drayton, a fifth generation member of the Drayton family and winemaker for the family owned winery. The second person killed may be a grapegrower cousin of Drayton (identity has not been released). Assistant winemaker 27 year old William Rikard-Bell is in critical condition after severe burns to 80 percent of his body. Apparently Rikard-Bell had the presence of mind to run 100 yards to a small dam and immerse himself in the water.
The explosion produced a huge fireball that blew off the roof of the winery and burnt areas 50 meters away. The bodies of the two dead have not yet been removed from the site due to the instability of the structures following the blast and fire. The explosion is believed to have been caused by sparks from a welding machine igniting fumes from stored ethanol.
The Drayton family has had a history of tragedy. Half the family was lost to typhus during the trip to Australia in the 1850s. In 1994 his uncle, the retired winemaker Reg Drayton, and his wife Pam died in a plane crash on their way from Williamtown to Lord Howe Island. Their bodies were never recovered. Seven years earlier winemaker Barry Drayton was suffocated by fumes when cleaning out a wine tank. And Barry Drayton’s wife Rhonda unexpectedly died shortly before from hepatitis and their deaths orphaned four young daughters.
Drayton’s established their presence in the Hunter Valley in the 1850s, and have been grape growers and wine makers since that time. I have never seen any Drayton Family wines in North America, although the description from James Halliday’s online Wine Companion indicates that they do export to the USA. Production is 90,000 cases of typical Hunter wines. I remember drinking Drayton wines back in the "70s, but that would have been before Trevor Drayton was even through wine school. Trevor Drayton graduated as Dux of his Oenology course at Roseworthy Agricultural Training College in South Australia and was also the current President of the Hunter Valley Vineyard Association.
Audio Slideshow at Sydney Morning Herald.
Regular readers will know that Miranda and I share our house with three standard poodles, and four cats (of an imagined Irish heritage). These animals also occupy various parts of our bedroom, but the most conspicuous occupants of the bedroom are the bookshelves on either side of the California King. Mine, the really small one, is stacked with books on a multitude of topics including wine. Well in truth, most books on my side of the bed are about wine. This book fetish creates a problem when I travel as I can’t carry the whole bookshelf with me. So I select a book, or two. And hope that I will find the time to read. On my trip to Australia last December I packed a half-read copy of Campbell Mattinson’s “Why the French Hate Us”. It’s a passionate book. Worthy of purchase. But the second half is a less interesting read than the first. So, wandering around LAX. I snapped up a soft cover copy of Jay McInerney’s “A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine”. I have it in hard cover. I’ve never looked at it. Its collecting dust in another room of our house in San Diego. A quick skim of the LAX purchase suggested that I might find some interest in a few of the chapters; why is it that non-Aussie wine writers find it so difficult to write about the most innovative and interesting wine continent?
Never mind, Oz is filled with good bookshops. And Dubbo, at the periphery of the (wine)outback, is no different from anywhere else. With little else to do but hook up the laptop to the internet in my cousin’s Darrell Lea chocolate shop, and hope that my work email might function correctly. I decided to walk the main drag in search of wine books. The Book Connection at first proved uninteresting. But in a little alcove a few used gems. A 1979 copy of “Wine Australia” by The Australian Wine Board ($7AUD) slouched next to Max Lake’s “Hunter Winemakers” (1970); the inside covers filled with copies of wine labels of decades past. Ah, the memories. Another eight bucks. And then a few spines further along. An almost pristine copy of “Wines and Wineries of the Barossa Valley” by Bryce Rankine (1971), and even more wine labels. Another $7. The little bedside table in a bedroom once occupied by the most forgiving of grandmothers was beginning to buckle.
Off to the big smoke, Sydney. And my mate Ted’s little house on the edge of national parkland in Warrimoo. The Blue Mountains. A hell of along way from anywhere and central to everything. Ted has a small idiosyncrasy, he collects pretty much everything. Well OK, for many years its just been Australia prints (but its a bloody diverse range of artists, Ted), books and periodicals on art, and now postcards. His excuse for the latter is that he is writing a book on photography of the Blue Mountains.
Ted is celebrated for something else. He thinks of his mates or more specifically his mates’ idiosyncrasies when he’s on the hunt for more acquisitions. So after we have gone through a few bottles of (rather obscure) Aussie wine I am presented with a foxed but otherwise excellent copy of H E Laffer’s “The Wine Industry of Australia” (1949). It cost him $8. Thanks mate.
There is one more book to add to the bedside table. Halliday’s “2008 Australian Wine Companion”. Dymocks in the city has it. It makes my checked luggage “overweight” but the ticket counter lady does not even notice. Home, James!
A regional manager for Australian drinks giant Fosters says he was forced to destroy two bottles of Penfolds Grange at Melbourne airport due to security restrictions.
Having just come back from Australia with 11 bottles of Seppelts fortifieds in my luggage I think the above story says more about Foster's employees than the difficulties of taking wine onto a plane.
Some of the comments here are, well, interesting!
An additional note. Mr Grant estimated the two bottles were probably worth about $3000. In the Langton's Auction sale of Dec 17 the two vintages of Grange went for less than $350AUD each; the 1980 for $332 and the most expensive bottle of 1982 was sold for $326. Works of art indeed!
Geoff Kelly, the noted New Zealand wine academic and writer, has updated his notes on Judging Syrah, and the Syrah Ripening Curve. Anyone interested in Syrah/Shiraz will find this little contribution overflowing with information on Syrah, not only as it relates to New Zealand but Syrah/Shiraz in general. His listing of the aroma profile of Syrah as it ripens to physiological maturity should be memorized by all Syrah lovers, and detractors as well!
Its no secret that Geoff Kelly is Eurocentric in his wine preferences – he would say he favors the “mellow beauty” of wine. This makes him no lover of Australian Shiraz, but this in no way detracts from the knowledge readers can gain from his all too infrequent writings.
“There is much experience and scientific understanding to verify that these wines age poorly.” Clark Smith, Grapecrafter.
I’m currently in Australia, but before I boarded the puddle-jumper from San Diego to LAX, and then QANTAS to Sydney, Miranda asked me to select some wines from the cellar that she could drink in my absence; she didn’t want to fall afoul of cellar theft! I thought that was very considerate of her so I put together a mixed group of mainly reds that will suit her palate and those of any friends that visit. In the course of searching out these wines in what is quickly becoming a very disorganized cellar I found a wine that we had not tasted for quite a while. There were three bottles. We could try one with dinner and the other two would be added to her little stash, after all it was a wine that she had purchased when we toured Napa and Sonoma 4 or 5 years ago. Besides the label said 15.5% alcohol and described the wine, when young, as “a ripe port-like wine”. And as all the experts will tell you these high alcohol wines are just rubbish, and they don’t age anyway.
The wine was to accompany a very tasty beef pie; that would send the evening even further downhill because, as all the pundits cry from the rooftops of their ivory towers, these high alcohol wines just don’t go with food. Before the pie was served I decided to decant the wine which was approaching its 10th birthday. There was not a lot of sediment, but enough to warrant the ceremony. The anti-high alcohol league will call that another waste of effort.
The color of the wine was vibrant, with a mahogany red center that faded to orange/brown at its edge. A few sniffs revealed an enticing and charming bouquet that continued to change during the evening. First caramel sweet toffee, then spices, tobacco, pepper, and licorice. And then Bonox, and then raisins: I just couldn’t keep up!
On the palate the wine was full bodied with excellent carry of flavors and the remaining drying astringency carried through to a lengthy finish that was enhanced by a note of sweet cold tea. Juicy acidity framed the package with a hint of sharpness suggesting that the wine had approached its zenith some time before. But it was still a palate pleaser, well aged, and refreshingly complex. In style it could almost be an aged Shiraz or even a Petite Syrah. Would it go with the beef pie?
I have tasted very few wines that have been so abundantly transformed by food. The markers of age, the slightly drying tannins, and the faintly piquant acidity dissolved and were replaced by a fullness and roundness that grew on the palate; it literally seemed to seduce my mouth. That sweet, spicy bouquet exploded in wave after wave of flavor. The meal became a simple process of eat a mouthful of pie, sip some wine, and then sit back and let the senses enjoy themselves. Rubbish high alcohol wine. Who could possibly enjoy this?
What was the wine? Hop Kiln Russian River Valley Zinfandel (Primitivo Vineyard) 1998. This bottling was the first from a replanted vineyard, but when I visited the winery site online to see if more recent vintages were available I could find none. That should please the anti-high alcohol league.
I’m one of those individuals who likes to take notes when I drink wine. I believe that putting down my impressions of a wine in written form helps focus my powers of vision, smell and taste; helps me appreciate the wine. A tasting note is what I like to think of as one part of a complete wine experience and, importantly, it is an aid to remembering the taste and smell of the wine. I’m also a wine drinker who likes to compare wines. Yes, I’ll even taste multiple wines in one sitting and, God forbid, I’ll even rank them in order of how my palate perceives their quality. And just to add insult to injury I’ll give the individual wines a score. After all wine, to me, is a beverage and even though some may try to argue the point, not all wines are the same. In fact very few wines are the same. And even though a wine may provide great pleasure (even intense disgust) resulting in an emotional response I don’t view wine with the same emotional attachment that a film, or a painting, or a book may evoke. Yes, I’ve admired the bottle, read the label, become one physically with the cork (or screwcap), appraised its color and legs, and maybe even viewed enticing pictures of video about it in cyberspace.
But I’ve also smelled and tasted it. I’ve taken in too much information for a simple like or dislike response, or even an emotional association with some pleasurable event in my life. During the viewing, smelling and tasting I’ve been accommodating an entirely new combination of attributes recorded by my senses, and fitted them into a new space in the wine library in my brain. And to help me recall that experience I’ve documented the smells and tastes. I’ve put my senses through a series of tough hurdles, trying to discern if its plum, blueberry, blackberry or mulberry that is the predominant aroma. And is there a little bit of vanilla here, perhaps a hint of violets, and maybe just a few molecules of Brett! I’m not being subjective. I’m forcing my senses to be as objective as they can be. An objectivity gained by over 30 years of absorbing as much written knowledge about wine that I can, collecting wine, comparative wine tasting, visiting wine regions and talking with winemakers, even trying to make sense of Robert Parker’s tasting notes. I’ve invested too much into this mad pursuit to wax lyrical about a wine, comparing it to a summer’s breeze or a woman’s breast. I want to score it! I want to give it some credibility with its peers. Place a number on it, give it a medal. Not frame it on a wall, or confuse its qualities by comparing it to a subjective, emotional fragment of existence that only I may have experienced.
And so I score, and score, and score. Wine deserves to be scored, some wines call out for a really BIG score. Others whimper, and accept a lesser accolade; both they and I know they deserve it. I trust my senses of sight, smell and taste so I know I’m correct in my judgment. OK, I will go back through the wines again, from least to best, just to confirm the agreement of my palate with the ranking I’ve recorded.
But how do I score wine? Those who read my Tasting Notes blog know I score out of 20 and then convert that to 100 by simple multiplication. Out of respect for Dan Murphy, a wine taster has to give a score out of 100. Yes, I know that my inactivity with the TN blog means that fewer and fewer of you visit there, but who knows I may want to share all my hard work scoring with you again, so be patient.
Do I need to use just numbers? No, I could score with stars, or medals, or any other method as long as it can provide an objective ranking, none of this subjective imagery. Of course all the forms of ranking should be comparable. How is that done? Its very simple really, you steal someone else’s graphic of wine scoring. I’m going to steal Geoff Kelly’s. Why? Because it actually makes sense. I look at it and think yes, that fits neatly with being objective about wine. That is a thoughtful, clear assessment of how wine ranking methods compare.