16 Aug 2011

On the tricky subject of wine and alcohol

Wine contains alcohol. In fact one of the "official" definitions of the word wine goes something like this: "wine is the result of the total or partial fermentation of grapes or grape juice." And when one has fermentation, one has alcohol, since the (usually) natural process of fermentation is the transformation of starch or sugar into ethanol (and other substances) through the action of yeasts, as Pasteur discovered.

But wine is about so much more than alcohol, as all the litterature devoted to this beverage tends to show. And there are many liquid products that contain far more alcohol per volume than wine. Of course there are also products that contain less alcohol, such as beer and (generally) cider.

So what is this rather drawn-out and banal introduction leading to? To a debate that seems to be doing the rounds in some wine circles, and which also has its echos between several colleagues and myself, all of whom have various activities in this domain.

It is a fact that alcohol is badly looked upon in some parts of the world, and even in some spheres within countries that produce and promote alcoholic beverages. There can be no doubt at all that abuse (i.e. "excessive" comsumption) of alcohol creates various disorders of physiological, psychological and sociological natures. And yet, comsumed reasonably (try to define that word!), alcohol produces a releasing of inhibitions that can be beneficial to certain intellectual and social activities, not to mention a sense of well-being that is very welcome in a stressful era or situation. In other words, alcohol is a drug to be treated with respect and precaution, but which has some potentially useful functions in society provided that it is well administered. And (personal note here) the decision as to what constitutes good administration should remain individual and not official.

So what about wine, apart from the fact that it contains alcohol? Well, for a start, not all wines contain the same proportion of alcohol. It is usually admitted that wines contain between 7% and 15% of their volume in alcohol. Buit there are several exceptions. Moscato d'Asti (a sweet sparkling wine from Italy's Piedmont), for example, contains around 5,5% alcohol. Fortified wines, such as port or sherry, often contain up to 20% alcohol. And even what are known as "table wines " in some parts of the world (in other words wines which have not been fortified by the addition of alcohol), can sometimes exceed 15% alcohol.

The question latent here is that of the increasing quantity of alcohol in wines, induced by a variety of causes: taste (wine critics as well as consumers) shifting in favour of "rounder" and more ripe styles of flavours, growing absence of wine cellars to age wine before drinking resulting in the favouring of the style of wine just mentioned, improved viticultural techniques to feed these flavour preferences, and so on.

The net result has been an avarage increase in the alcohol levls of virtually all wines of 2 degrees. My friend Luc Charlier will say that this is not a problem. I beg to differ. Although wines can be very good at levels above 14% alcohol, and often superior to wines at lower levels, the growth in alcohol levels in wines causes various difficulties: fiscal in some cases as wine is often taxed according to its alcoholic degree; physiological, as one cannot absorb a glass of wine of 15% alcohol as one can a wine of 8%; and psychologocal as the barrier against alcohol tends to rise in accordance with the degree thereof.

I would be happy drinking wine with no alcohol content, as what interests me in wine is its flavours and and the rest (the culture and all of that), but not the alcohol content. The problem here is that alcohol-free wine just doesn't taste right. And perhaps a certain dose of alcohol is inseparable from the product, in its imaginative extensions. Who knows?