units of alcohol and wine units

From Baudelaire to Doughnuts: units of alcohol, our health and the future

One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters” Charles Baudelaire, the 19th century French poet once said.

You can be absolutely certain, in the 21st century, that government, the health service and advisory bodies such as drinkaware would take issue with him for disregarding alcohol units.

Units of alcohol, alcohol by volume and personal taste

He would be gently encouraged to ‘ease off the throttle’. The knowledge that each bottle has an alcohol by volume of 12% would barely raise a Gallic shrug. Poor old Baudelaire would be horrified to learn that a bottle of Chinon, a delicious light red from the Loire, has been statistically reduced to 3 large glasses of wine or 8.2 units. The knowledge that this represents more than double the recommended daily consumption of 3-4 units might just tip the man over the edge. (January 2016 update: guideline limits for men are reduced to 14 units per week, see more on our Forum)

For us information rich, health conscious 21st century beings, this kind of information is practically etched on our wine glass. It needs to be. The wine world has exploded in the last 150 years. ‘Meaty’ reds from Cahors, or 13.5% abv Barolos have been joined by ‘monsters’ from South Africa, Australia and South America ‘weighing in’ at 14% abv or more.

If these blockbusters are the wines that ‘rock your boat’, don’t feel guilty about getting your taste buds round them, just be smart.

Heed the advice of Suzi Gage in The Guardian, 22 April 2014, and treat with a healthy dose of scepticism and common sense the claims of retired Finnish professor Kari Poikolainen, “that moderate drinking is less harmful than being teetotal, and that it’s only after drinking 13 units per day that alcohol is harmful.”

That might apply to a German Riesling at 9% abv but pause for a moment. 14% abv equates to a hefty 10.5 units; ‘moderate drinking’ in this context means you and I need to be thinking in terms of 2 small glass or 1 large (250ml) glass a day.

If you want to keep going, that’s your call. After all, government guidelines on alcohol units are just that, guidelines. They are not enshrined in law and the onus is on you and I to decide which fork to take in the road of health.

Wine, our health and the law.

units of alcohol, how many units are in a wine bottleIt’s when we put our car keys in the ignition that ‘the law’ takes a keen interest. It is one thing to ‘polish off’ a bottle of wine with friends at your home. What if it’s your turn to do the driving?

Can you, after a fun evening with friends, recite by heart the laws on drink driving in England and Wales? Even if you could recall that the limit, as www.drinkaware.co.uk succinctly puts it, “is 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, 35 microgrammes of breath or 107 milligrammes per 100 millilitres of urine”, who on earth is going to announce to their friends at the start of an evening that they are going to keep a detailed log book? Chances are the social invitations will dry up.

There are so many factors affecting our capacity to absorb and process alcohol, including, gender, weight, metabolism, age and how recently we have eaten, that the brutal truth, which those ‘north of the border’ have just realized after tighter regulations there came into force in December last year, is that it is best not to drive at all. Nominate a driver or better still share a taxi seems to be the way to go.

After all, you know that if you can’t do up your seatbelt, something has got to give and at the moment it’s your waistline. “A bottle of wine” www.enjoyresponsibly.co.uk informs, “has the same calories as six jam doughnuts.” Now I don’t know about you, but this statistic, short on science as it may be, gets my instant attention.

Knowing that a large glass of Californian Zinfandel represents over 200 calories is enough to make you suck in your tummy muscles involuntarily. Realizing that this equates to 2 doughnuts is serious pause for thought.

It is very easy, when pondering this, or the more serious statistics available through the NHS, to sink into a slough of despondency and succumb to anxiety attacks.

If you have already identified that you are regularly breaching the guidelines, you need to know that this kind of lifestyle could end up with you being a regular ‘guest’ of the NHS: as a man you are increasing the risk of contracting throat, neck and mouth cancer; for women there is a greater risk of getting breast cancer; cirrhosis of the liver and high blood pressure become more likely for both sexes.

However, it is not the end of the world and you need to get a sense of proportion, By simply moving, in part at least, to light reds such as Chinon and bone dry whites from cooler, northern hemisphere climes, for example Sancerre, Muscadet or Chablis, you will be cutting down on the calories. The latter are also particularly good if you are diabetic.

They might not be the best choice if you are asthmatic, as white wines contain higher levels of sulphur, a common preservative to which some asthmatics react badly. There is a burgeoning wine sector that addresses the issue of additives head on.

Organic Wines and Alcohol Units

This is a vast subject worthy of its own post and it is easy to get mired in a plethora of information and controversy.

The arguments start with the whole notion of organic and what it means. Under EU law, which came into force in August 2012, a wine can be called organic if it has been made from grapes cultivated organically in a vineyard that converted to organic practices at least 3 years previously.

That is too ‘woolly’ a definition and doesn’t go nearly far enough for many, who believe, as the wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd put it, that the wine “should be free of all chemicals except naturally occurring sulphur and copper” and should be supported by a whole raft of information required by certification bodies such as www.ecocert.com

What seems clear is that both camps embrace the overall spirit of an organic movement that encourages minimal intervention and, as the highly respected wine critic and author Jancis Robinson puts it, continually searches for “natural alternatives to industrial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, with the primary purpose of ensuring optimum soil health.” 

You and I, as consumers worry about the woeful lack of research into some additives, with little idea of their consequences and until this information vacuum improves

we will vote with our wallet and try wines that, anecdotally at least, taste fresher and leave some of us feeling better. Wines, for example, like those made by Fabrice Dodane at Domaine de St Pierre in the Cotes de Jura and Arbois, by the Milos winery in Croatia using the ancient Plavac Mali grape and further afield in the Maule region of southern Chile by Concha-y-Toro.

Alcohol Units and Biodynamic wines

Some of us, as we learn more about the ethos and practices of organic wine, thirst for more, if you’ll forgive the pun. In that case the next step is biodynamic wines.

Producers of these wines take the organic concept to another, more extreme level, practically disowning their organic ‘cousins’ in the process. Rooted in the visionary teachings of Austria’s Rudolf Steiner and Japan’s Masanobu Fukuoka, this movement fuses science with cosmology that invites, as you might expect, howls of derision and a torrent of less-than-kind comment on the blog-a-sphere.

This is a shame, because leaving aside the new age connotations, this movement, with its strict accreditation requirements administered by Demeter and Biodyvin, is on to something. As the blogger Cory Cartwright put it in 2007 “a lot of it is hokum to be sure, but I’ll take a system that encourages good farming first and foremost over what most winemakers are doing” and a system, as fellow blogger Ashwin adds, is “not losing sight of an older- school, more traditional way of doing things, where science hasn’t automotized and depersonalized a process that should connect one to the earth.” (www.vinography.com/archives/2008/11/the_skeptics_guide_to_biodynam.html)

The vines certainly look very healthy, Jancis Robinson observes, and the resulting fruit more intense. Those less-than-convinced by this movement would argue that this is because each vine is lavished with care and attention rather than attributable to any special techniques..

See if I care’ would be the likely response of the movement’s maverick standard bearer, Randall Grahm in California who has ploughed on regardless of what the mainstream thinks of him.

The results speak for themselves. You only have to try the sublime wines of winemaker Alfred Tesseron at Bordeaux’s Ch. Pontet-Canet to realize this; subtle, bright, fresh qualities on the palate; the alcohol a very modest 12-13% abv.

Certainly this care and attention is reflected in the price of such wines, which are not cheap. The wine merchants Berry Brothers and Rudd have an excellent list of organic and biodynamic wines to choose from.

Natural Wines: any change in alcohol units?

For some the biodynamic movement doesn’t go far enough and ever since the 1970’s producers like Favard in Bordeaux and Gravner in Friuli have extended the missionary zeal into the inner workings of the winery itself, striving, as Isabelle Legeron MW explains in Decanter Magazine, September 2011, to produce wines totally free of “packets of yeasts,vitamens, enzymes, Mega Purple, reverse osmosis, cryoextraction or powdered tannins.”

if you think the biodynamic movement has come in for some flack that is nothing compared to the Natural Wine movement. It has attracted the scorn of some prominent critics, notably David Gleave MW of Liberty Wines and the journalist Tim Atkin. The general consensus amongst these critics is that these wines are unstable, oxidized and are guilty of nothing less than poor wine making.

Well, be rude as you like, seems to be the consensus amongst winemakers like Jean- Pierre Robinot and fellow Loire winemaker Olivier Cousin because we aren’t going away and we are the future. We, the customer, seem to agree. Vegetarians and vegans are very interested in wines that don’t use animal products such as egg white, fish bladder and casein from milk.

Sylvie Augeron, the French wine journalist and author of the natural wine guide Carnet de Vigne notes with some satisfaction, there are now over 400 producers in France alone, bolstered by a score of Natural Wine fairs.

2 Natural Wine fairs have sprung up in London in the last few years: The Artisan Wine Fair held in May at The Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane and The Real Wine Fair held in April at Tobacco Dock.

Low Alcohol, Non-Alcohol and Alcohol Free Wines

For some of us, this is still not enough. Those with serious cardiovascular issues, the weight conscious and those who resolutely remain teetotal are still looking for the vinous holy grail: a product that doesn’t over-excite the blood pressure; has minimal sugar and calorific implications yet preserves the taste and texture of the real thing.

Nature can give us wines as low as 8 or 9% abv. Halting fermentation halfway through the process gives us Asti Spumante at 8/9% abv but if we want to go even lower? It seems only the laboratory can provide the answer, All the low alcohol, non-alcohol and alcohol-free products available so far owe their existence to two processes, reverse osmosis and vacuum distillation.

Reverse osmosis ingeniously “filters out the aroma compounds and phenolics before the alcohol is removed by distillation. Afterward, the remaining water is added back into the filtered wine concentrate” http://winefolly.com/ explains. French researchers claim to have reduced a cabernet sauvignon from 12% abv to 6% abv, without, as winefolly puts it compromising “the antioxidants beneficial to cardiovascular health.”

Vacuum distillation evaporates the wine using a vacuum chamber. Unfortunately, with the evaporation goes most of the aromas. Consequently leading producers such as Ariel and Fré don’t use it.

The general consensus so far is less than a ringing endorsement: removing the alcohol, critics say, strips the wine of any flavour and texture, damages the wine and produces wines that taste more like breakfast juice; they might be better for the liver, critics add but they certainly aren’t kind to the wallet.

Nevertheless, these wines are attracting a lot of interest and If you want to give these wines a try visit The Alcohol-Free shop in Manchester and try their 0.5% abv Torres Natureo Syrah.

The Best Non-Alcohol alternatives

Baudelaire, if he was alive today, would be hopping up and down with apoplexy crying ‘oh for goodness sake, what is the point’. The point, as Chris Moss notes in The Daily Telegraph, 5 October 2014, is that “it’s now cool to be sober and “within a decade or so drinking more than a unit of alcohol will provoke the same kind of incredulous contempt and social panic as smoking.”

So what on earth are we supposed to do? Most pubs certainly don’t have the answer, unable to think much beyond Britvic and orange, while the big supermarkets are in thrall to certain big brand cordials. Panic not. Before you ‘sink into your cups’ and fret about losing your friends, listen up.

Why not skip alcohol altogether and head straight for one of the numerous non-alcoholic alternatives? The combinations are endless, interesting and packed with flavour. The Alcohol-Free Wine Shop has an eye-popping, tantalizing selection that includes James White Russet Apple Juice, Luscombe Hot Ginger Beer and Belvoir Coconut and Lime Pressé.

If you metropolitan types are feeling particularly adventurous you could try exotica such as Kombucha, a fermented, sweetened tea or Kvass, an eastern European speciality originally made from stale bread.

The simplest solution is right under your nose. Make your own, the permutations are endless and seem to be a combination of soda water or tonic water and virtually any fruit juice you care to think of, from lemon juice to pomegranate.

Me? Since breakfast is a recent memory and as a nod to the ‘new cool’, I’m off to have a crack at making a Big Tom, a non-alcoholic concoction with 21 ingredients that includes tomato juice, herbs, spices and celery.

Cheers.

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