Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Are you drowning in high alcohol wines?

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.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Able Grape - a wine knowledge search engine

The ever expanding world of cyberspace is truly a spider’s web. Probe it for items on Shiraz and you are just as likely to be stuck with hits for Shiraz, Iran as you are for the grape of the same name. If you want an example of this just click on the Google SHIRAZ NEWS tab to the right of this page. Wouldn’t it be handy if there was a search engine restricted to wine related material? Well there is, or at least there is a site that is in Beta that proclaims to be a wine search engine for learning and research. Called Able Grape it came about through a need to have up-to-date, trustworthy wine information from the web that would help in passing WSET exams. Still a work in progress, Able Grape consists of 32,000 sites and some 10 million pages. That’s serious wine content.

Just how friendly and effective is Able Grape? When I first tried to search its contents I was led to a page with the following -

You are getting this message because your browser is not a supported configuration. At present, Able Grape supports:
• Safari 2.0/3.0 (best experience; Mac)
• Firefox 2 (best experience; Mac/PC)
• Internet Explorer 7.0 (good experience; PC)
Javascript must also be enabled in your browser. We truly apologize for the inconvenience. As we grow, we hope to support additional browsers more gracefully.

After updating to Version 7 of IE I was off and running. The search mechanism is still a little clunky, which is why there is a help page. I found the best approach, at present, is to type in your search word(s) and then refine the search using the TOPIC and REGION filters on the left of the page. My first attempt was with decanting Shiraz, which brought up 1,779 hits. That is a lot, but its way less than the 80,000 hits on a Google search. Refining by limiting my search to South Pacific reduced the number to 241. Then I got serious and limited myself to Australia (215 hits; I guess they don’t do a lot of decanting in New Zealand – must be all the Sauvignon Blanc), then South Australia (72 hits), and then Barossa Zone for 25 hits. Most of the hits were for Jacob’s Creek Centenary Hill Shiraz. But the link I found the most satisfying was the very first hit on my initial search. It was The Frugal Oenophile’s post on The Great Decanting Debate. I particularly liked the conclusion -

So what do we make of all this? First, decanting is not a fool-proof solution to anything except the elimination of sediment. Also, aeration appears to negatively affect the nose of the wine, making the wine dumb. Aeration will not necessarily soften tannins or make the wine rounder either. Although a two-hour rest may appeal to some people, no aeration period seems to be ideal; anything from 0 to 24 hours appears to pass muster.

This experiment involved one wine, from one maker, from one region, from one vintage, decanted according to one person's idea of how it should be done. At every turn I tried to eliminate variables, and yet the results were far from conclusive. My tasters managed to come up with a definitive answer. After a brief discussion (while I was out of the room), they decided: There is no answer. Not what I was hoping for.

So it would seem that decanting is not a given. There are no clear-cut reasons for doing it, but apparently no real reason not to. I will continue to use my decanter for cut flowers, as I've proven to myself that I don't like what decanting does to wine, unless I hit some sediment, of course.

I finally know what to do with the decanters I have!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Decanting Marius

Here at Shiraz there is not a big belief in decanting wine to allow the wine to open-up. Long personal experience has shown me that there are few wines that show real improvement with decanting. In fact, for me decanting is more likely to detract from the appeal of a wine. That said, it is clear that the world of wine is fraught with danger when it comes to implying that personal tasting experiences are applicable to all palates. However this does not mean that dogma does not rule wine appreciation in not so subtle ways. One of the examples of wine dogma is that decanting allows young red wines to throw off the excesses of youth and soften into something more approachable. And one of the wine styles that is often cited as an example is Australian Shiraz. Many believe that these big, bold, fruit laden wines need a little time out in the open air in order to lose some of their larrikin image. But is that something that can be generalized?

Just before my trip to Australia in December last year I asked the members of an online wine forum in Australia to list Australian red wines that they thought would benefit from decanting. I received some excellent suggestions but the most intriguing proposal came from Roger Pike of Marius Wines of McLaren Vale in South Australia. Intriguing because Roger stated that “my wines certainly open up and gain complexity with a couple of hours of air. They are probably a good example of what you are looking for.” After a little discussion an order was sent out for a couple of bottles of the Marius 2005 Symphony Shiraz (15% alcohol) and the 2005 Simpatico Shiraz (14.5% alcohol). These single vineyard wines arrived a few days after I had made my way to central western New South Wales, to my birthplace and more recently home to a growing wine industry.

The plan was to assess one of the wines at a wine tasting that had been arranged by Chris Davis who had gathered together a group of wine friends to blind taste a number of the best Australian Shiraz and Shiraz blends. An ideal opportunity to test if decanting improves young Aussie Shiraz. The location for the tasting was Carlton House, a beautiful old home built around 1873 that is used by the Orana Education & Training Cooperative Ltd (OEC) as a function centre available for community and business events including weddings, parties, seminars and conferences. And now wine tastings! Like most planned wine events a number of the invited guests never materialized and those that did attend were never all together at the same time. On the bright side this meant that there was a whole lot more outstanding wine for those of us who did make it, but on the other hand there were only three of us present when it came time to taste the decanted wine, and one of us (me) had to pour the wines so the tasting could be blinded.

The wine was the 2005 Symphony Shiraz and the two tasters were Chris and another of the OEC board members with the original name of Mike. Each was given two glasses, one with decanted (2 hours) wine and another with wine from a freshly opened bottle. After tasting the wines they were both asked to identify which wine they thought had been decanted. They both picked different glasses; Chris arguing that his choice had to be correct because the wine was softer, while Mike argued that he was correct because the wine was fresher. When I pointed out that Chris was indeed correct Mike was heard to utter “Well, I’m gobsmacked”. Its probably important to point out that gobsmacked is a British slang term meaning more than just surprised; it’s used for something that leaves you speechless, or otherwise stops you dead in your tracks. Having your perceptions of the value of decanting so rudely dashed can do that.

What was my opinion of the two glasses of 2005 Symphony Shiraz? Well, as I’ve said, I didn’t taste the glasses blinded but the difference was very clear. The decanted wine was more closed while the wine from the bottle was richer and riper with better carry of flavors onto the palate and more length to the finish.

Fast forward four days to a dinner at Chris’ home and another comparison of decanted and undecanted wine. This time it was the 2005 Simpatico Shiraz that had been decanted for 3 hours. We had three tasters willing to accept the challenge of identifying the decanted wine, myself, Chris and, well, let’s just call him Doc! To me the difference between the two glasses was quite evident and I called the decanted wine correctly, as did Chris and Doc. My impression was that the decanted wine was less expressive and shorter on the finish. But Chris preferred the decanted wine arguing, as he did for the 2005 Symphony, that the decanted Simpatico was softer and better than wine from the freshly opened bottle. Judging by his consumption Doc also preferred the decanted wine.

Have we solved the riddle of the value of decanting young reds? Clearly not. My palate preference for freshly poured wine is old news; for me decanting improves the palate appeal of very few wines. What is clear is that these two outstanding Marius wines are affected by decanting. The question is whether you prefer them fresh out of the bottle or decanted? If you really do want to know how your palate responds to decanted wine I’d recommend that you buy two bottles of either (or both) of the Marius wines and do a comparison between decanted and freshly poured.

How Standard is a Standard Drink?

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.

A Standard Glass or Two...or More?

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.”