Monday, July 31, 2023

The USA produces higher-alcohol wine than elsewhere

Back in 2021, John Mariani asked the question: Why are wines’ alcohol content growing so high? He noted:
Blame California’s winemakers if you like for the soaring alcohol levels in their wines, but the practice is becoming so widespread globally that finding a red wine under 14.5% alcohol is getting more difficult than finding one at or above that critical number. And white wines are not far behind.
This is a topic worth looking at; and in this post I will do so with some actual data from retail wines in various wine-producing parts of the world.

Mariani answered his own question this way:
There are two principal reasons why this is happening, one natural, one engineered by winemakers. Of the former, climate change and, in particular, global warming are heating up the vineyards, causing the grapes to build up more sugar, which, when crushed at the winery, ferments into alcohol ...  But in warmer viticultural regions, sufficient sugar is not a problem. Indeed, the best winemakers seek a level well below 14.5% for red wines and below 14% for whites. But that is not the rule but the exception. Taking advantage of those higher temperatures, most winemakers have allowed their wines’ sugar levels to increase, largely by letting the grapes hang on the vine longer, which also intensifies the sugar-juice content in the grapes.
Deliberately creating high-alcohol wines, in this manner, apparently has its pluses and minus, as recently explained by Dan Berger; indeed, he called it: Wine's greatest enemy. The upside of higher alcohol is that the wines “are made for people who want their wines to be ‘tasty’ when young”. The downside is that the “wines are unbalanced ...  Most casual American wine consumers want all wines to be enjoyable within hours of purchase and within seconds of opening. Food compatibility? It’s rarely mentioned.”

Berger points the finger specifically at California wines, but includes other U.S. wines as well. He also castigates the wine commentators:
Some wine writers love to describe wines they adore as “rich,” like many buttery Chardonnays or unctuous Cabernets. To me, the word “rich” is usually associated with higher alcohols and insufficient acids.
Okay, so let's look at some data about all of this. Do U.S. wines, on average, have higher alcohol levels than those from other wine–producing countries? Yes, indeed, they do, as shown in the table here, separately for white and red wines.

The data come from the online database of the national alcohol retailer here in Sweden, called Systembolaget. I have used this data resource before, because it is an excellent source of alcohol-related information (Wine monopolies, and the availability of wine). A national retailer has a lot of wines, and they come from most places in the world; and so this is a reasonable sample of the available data.

There are data for 14,187 wines (as of 26 July 2023), with 6,375 reds and 3,960 whites (including all wines, irrespective of container type or size). However, only the top 9 countries in each case have >100 wines available for comparison, and these are the ones that appear in the table above. Clearly, most of the wines come from France and Italy. Nevertheless, in every case I calculated how many wines there were for each country with >15% alcohol (ABV) for reds and >14% for whites; and this is the last column of the table.

Clearly, the U.S.A. tops the list for both wine types, just as John Mariani and  Dan Berger have discussed. Indeed, for white wines the U.S. is double the next nearest country, while for reds it is being chased by both Italy and Spain. The latter is a point also made by Mariani, that other countries seem to be following the US lead.

Therefore, the points that the two commentators both make should be taken very seriously. Is this really the future of American wine, and, by implication, possibly also elsewhere?

Monday, July 24, 2023

What on earth is a “standard drink”?

I don't know how much thought you have given to the concept of what is often referred to as a “standard drink”, but, if you haven’t thought much about it, then it is most likely because you know only the local definition of it where you happen to live. Well, there are other ideas around the world, and when you read anything factual about alcohol then you need to keep this in mind.

Growing up when I did, in the 1960s and 70s, was interesting in Australia, because the culture started moving rapidly from its British heritage much more towards American culture (but ignoring the obvious excesses!). * However, Australia did differ from both of these role models by adopting the metric (SI) measurement system, rather than keeping the Imperial ones or their derivatives. For us, there was clearly not much in common between a British ounce and an American one, for example, so we needed something different.

It thus became obvious to us that the Americans and the British were sometimes talking past each other when it came to things like volumes, etc. This is the topic of this post, with regard to alcohol.

Bottle and glass

If we consult the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (part of the National Institutes of Health), then we will find that “one standard drink (or one alcoholic drink equivalent) contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol” [note the non–US unit!]. Pure alcohol, in this case is often called “absolute ethanol”, in the technical literature.

So, the NIAAA states that one standard drink is found in (using US units):
12 ounces of regular beer, which is usually about 5% alcohol
5 ounces of wine, which is typically about 12% alcohol
1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, which is about 40% alcohol.
However, this does not really help us, from two points of view. First, a more practical consideration might be to know how many drinks there are in a standard wine bottle, for example, not how much alcohol there is per drink. Second, the rest of the world does not actually agree with this definition of a “standard drink”. For example, Wikipedia has a long list of the different definitions among different countries.

This second point has been known for a long time. For example, way back in 1990, Charlotte Turner had a look at: How much alcohol is in a ‘standard drink’? An analysis of 125 studies. She found quite a degree of variation in the formal published literature, which is not a Good Thing for the rest of us. I mean, how can we work out how the conclusions from these studies compare with each other?

So, the scientists then tried to work out a way to standardize things. A summary appeared in Calculating standard drink units: international comparisons, which provides a set of simple calculation rules for converting alcohol consumption data among four common so–called ‘standard drinks’, as formally used in the USA, Canada, the UK, and Australia.

Table of standard drinks

The table that I have included here tries to summarize the situation (click to enlarge it). The four countries have had different definitions of how much ethanol is in their “standard drink” (the first column), although it is straightforward to convert between them (the second column). **

For our purposes here, we can convert this information to the number of “standard drinks” there would be in a standard-sized bottle of wine (Point 1 above). The main issue for us is that this differs depending on the alcohol content of the wine (%ABV). After all, if the bottle contains twice as much alcohol then there must be twice the number of alcoholic drinks in it. So, in the table I have also provided the number of drinks for a range of different wine ABV concentrations.

Note that the commonly quoted idea that there are 5 drinks per bottle of wine applies only to wine of 10% alcohol in the USA. In Australia, such a bottle is considered to contain 6 drinks, and in the UK it has more than 7 drinks. You need to keep this sort of difference in mind when reading magazines and on–line articles — the geographical source of the text really does matter, in this case.

Drink and drive

So, you need to stay on your toes, if you are trying to regulate your drinking based on the number of drinks you have had, for example. Different people have different ideas about this, for a very good reason — cultural diversity!

In the USA, there is an online Standard Drinks Calculator that can be used, provided by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. However, the numbers it produces differ somewhat from those reproduced above. Another Standard Drink Calculator produces the numbers I have quoted above for Australia; and there is also one that produces the quoted values for Canadians.

* For example, we use the words eggplant (US) not aubergine (UK), and zucchini (US) not courgette (UK). We do, however, use tap (UK) instead of faucet (US), and railway (UK) not railroad (US).

** There are reasons for these. For example, 10 grams of alcohol is considered to be how much the average human body can process in one hour.

Note: this is a somewhat different version of an earlier post of mine: A Standard Drink is not what you think it is. Also note that the Australian social move from the UK to the USA had a lot to do with the ANZUS Treaty of 1951, involving Australia, New Zealand and the USA as military allies. One consequence of this treaty was that both Australia and NZ fought alongside the USA in the Vietnam War (and also introduced the conscription of young adult males as participants), although many if not most Americans seem not to know any of this.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Is alcohol consumption a big moral issue?

We all know the answer to this question, in the sense that we recognize that consuming alcohol is a moral issue for quite a few people, for any one or more of several reasons (which I will not go into here). However, since not all people feel like this, we can note that this topic sometimes appears as a question in formal social surveys. Here, I will look at one such global survey, from 10 years ago.

Computer survey

The survey was from the Pew Research Center, of the USA. They conducted a 2013 Global Attitudes questionnaire survey, where they asked 40,117 respondents in 40 countries what they thought about eight topics often discussed as being moral issues (including: premarital sex, contraceptive use, abortion, extramarital affairs, and gambling).

The survey question of interest to us here was: “Do you personally believe that drinking alcohol is morally acceptable, morally unacceptable, or is it not a moral issue?”

The survey results for this question are shown in this table. The data are shown as percentages of those people who responded to the question (so the three numbers do not add up to 100%). Values greater than 50% are highlighted. [U = morally unacceptable, A = morally acceptable, N = not a moral issue.]

Alcohol morality survey

In many ways, the results are pretty much as we might expect. Muslim- and Hindu-dominated countries have many people (>50% per country) who consider alcohol consumption to be morally unacceptable, while European countries tend to find it acceptable (>25%). However, in reality, alcohol consumption is actually not seen as a moral issue by most Europeans (>40% per country), especially in France, Italy, Greece, Britain, and Spain, plus Canada, Australia and the USA. This, also, is perhaps not very surprising.

Interestingly, the Japanese stand out from all other countries because they apparently do find it to be a moral issue, but one that is acceptable to them. This is not necessarily a reference to consuming wine, of course (eg. saki)! Next come the Germans, who are presumably referring to both beer and wine as being acceptable.

So, alcohol consumption is a moral issue only in part of the world, but in those places where it is an issue then it is usually unacceptable. For most alcohol drinkers, it is apparently not a moral issue (unlike some of the other questionnaire topics listed above).

Monday, July 10, 2023

Alcohol negatively affects both types of our brain cells

In this blog I have recently looked at a few different aspects of how alcohol affects the human body (unsurprisingly, see the list of posts in: The effects of alcohol on the human body). However, one aspect that so far has been missing from this blog is a discussion of the direct effects on the human brain (as opposed to effects on the psychology of tasting alcoholic drinks). That is what I look at here, based on the scientific publication: Associations between alcohol consumption and gray and white matter volumes in the UK Biobank.

In this cited publication, the authors note, by way of introduction:
Chronic alcohol use is associated with changes in brain structure and connectivity. Neuro–imaging studies have shown that chronic heavy alcohol consumption (3 or more drinks for women and 4 or more drinks for men on any day) is associated with widespread patterns of macro–structural and micro–structural changes.
Our brains consist mostly of two types of cells: Grey matter and White matter. Grey matter contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies — this includes those regions of the brain involved in muscle control, and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision–making, and self–control. White matter is the tissue through which messages pass between different areas of Grey matter within the central nervous system. We need both types!

Alcohol and the brain

As a result of their work, the authors note:
Heavy alcohol consumption has been associated with brain atrophy, neuronal loss, and poorer White matter fiber integrity. However, there is conflicting evidence on whether light–to–moderate alcohol consumption shows similar negative associations with brain structure.

To address this, we examine the associations between alcohol intake and brain structure using multi–modal imaging data from 36,678 generally healthy middle–aged and older adults from the UK Biobank, a population sample whose reported alcohol consumption ranged from low (ie. 1–2 alcohol units per day) to high (ie. more than 4 alcohol units per day) levels of intake. [Note: a “unit of alcohol” is 10 ml of pure ethanol, so that 1 drink = 2 units.]

We find negative associations between alcohol intake and brain macro–structure and micro–structure. Specifically, alcohol intake is negatively associated with global brain volume measures, regional Gray matter volumes, and White matter micro–structure.

We show that the negative associations between alcohol intake and brain macro–structure and micro–structure are already apparent in individuals consuming an average of only one to two daily alcohol units, and become stronger as alcohol intake increases.
By way of evidence, the authors produce the following multi–part graph (among others). It illustrates the relationships of the global Grey– and White–matter volumes with daily alcohol intake (on a log scale) for the different sexes. The figures include local polynomial regression lines (LOWESS), which indicate negative trends in each of the four cases. That is, increasing alcohol consumption leads to reduced brain matter for both males and females.

Brain effects of increasing alcohol intake

The authors conclude:
In summary, this study provides additional evidence for a negative association between alcohol intake and brain macro–structure and micro–structure in a general population sample of middle–aged and older adults. Alcohol intake is negatively associated with global brain volume measures, regional Gray matter volumes, and White matter micro–structure. Most of these negative associations are apparent in individuals consuming an average of only one to two daily alcohol units. Thus, this multi–modal imaging study highlights the potential for even moderate drinking to be associated with changes in brain volume in middle–aged and older adults.
So, if you want to protect your brain, then you should be very careful about how much you drink. Indeed, regularly exceeding 2 drinks per day is clearly asking for long–term trouble, especially if you are no longer young.

Monday, July 3, 2023

The psychology of wine tasting, part II

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about The psychology of tasting wine, which provided a brief introduction to how much effect our minds have on what we perceive, independently of what is actually there, as related to drinking wine. Today I will explore this topic a bit further, in particular regarding the relationship between novices and experts.

A famous wine collection

One useful starting point is a brief web post by Shirley Mueller: Science and wine collecting: Do they mix? Scientists seem to have one opinion about the answer to this question, while high-end collectors have the other. Mueller is on the side of the scientists.

The three main points that she makes are:
  1. Among recent discoveries about wine appreciation is that vision is primary to our judgement of what we drink.
  2. We know that some people are gifted in their ability to appreciate wine; the rest of us can simply enjoy it.
  3. Even established authorities on wine are not necessarily able to distinguish wine properties in a blind tasting.
Here are quotes of some concrete experimental examples of these issues, which seem to be very interesting, to me:
[A] When the [people being studied] were told the wine was expensive, the anterior part of their brain, the orbitofrontal cortex, was activated. This region is known to encode for pleasurable experiences during experiential tasks. On the other hand, there was no reaction in those [people being studied] who were informed that they were drinking cheap wine. This experiment suggests that what we believe about the wine we are drinking strongly influences how much we enjoy it.

[B] Not only is what we are told about the wine we are drinking important, but its presentation makes a difference in our perception of it. For example, the shape of the bottle and particulars of the label, plus the glass from which we drink the wine, affect us. Moreover, the music playing in the background can influence our experience of the wine, and the ambient light, which impacts the inherent color of the wine. This added information is a lot to take in.

[C] Charles Spence, a primary author in this area, has reviewed a number of papers regarding the skill of wine experts during wine tastings. He concludes that authorities on wine could not distinguish wine properties in a blind tasting, much less amateurs. Rather, the difference that was observed between novices and experts was that the latter were able to give identifications and classifications to wine aromas readily. This makes them appear smart, but in reality, their nose was no better than the neophytes. They could not distinguish one wine from another any better than the next person. In summary, [Spence] wrote: “Studies of perceptual learning in the world of wine suggest that the majority of the learning tends to be more conceptual / cognitive than specifically in terms of changes to sensory thresholds. In part, the reason for this may once again relate to the complexity of the underlying stimulus.”
Adulterating fruit colour

I also directly addressed the work of Charles Spence in my previous blog post on this topic. Here, I will continue with some further pertinent quotes from him about tasting wine:
What has taken many people by surprise is just how easy it is to fool even the wine experts simply by deliberately miscolouring a wine. [Furthermore,] given the many well-controlled failures to discriminate wines blind on the basis of their age, quality, or price, the question then becomes one of what exactly the wine expert learns when training.

One [might] wonder how much of what goes on in, and is written about, the world of wine is some kind of social construction based on expectations rather than necessarily reflecting a genuine perceptual effect. The results of blind tastings, together with the extensive literature on the absence of sensory threshold changes in expert wine-tasters, certainly do suggest that higher-level cognitive / conceptual constructs, together with the associated mental imagery concerning what one is expected to taste / experience, play a major part in the wine-tasting experience, especially for the experts (and here, I am thinking particularly about the wine writers).

However, what becomes clear from the case of wine-tasting is the sequential nature of the taster’s multisensory interaction with the product. First come the visual cues, then orthonasal olfaction, and thereafter gustation, oral-somatosensation, and eventually retronasal olfaction. As such, the earlier presented cues (e.g. vision) tend to set expectations, and perhaps even generate mental imagery concerning the tastes and flavours that are expected to be present in the wine. These sensory expectations then anchor, guide, and possibly interact with the subsequent sensory inputs in ways that are yet to be fully elucidated.
Blind wine tasting

Fiona Becket has also offered ideas concerning: Why wine tasting is an imperfect science. In particular, she has listed other factors that might affect the way in which you taste any particular wine:
  • How long the wine has been opened and whether it’s been decanted
  • How much is left in the bottle
  • How many wines you’ve tasted beforehand
  • What type of wine preceded the one you’re tasting
  • Whether it’s a tank sample or a finished wine
  • How familiar with or sympathetic you are to that particular style of wine
  • How long since you’ve eaten and how much
  • How well — or badly — you’ve slept
  • Whether you’re jet-lagged and tasting in a different time zone
  • What temperature the room is and whether it’s air-conditioned
  • Whether there are extraneous smells
  • The weather
  • The psychological state of the taster
So, you have been warned! Conducting a wine tasting will never be easy (even though I have done several small ones recently). More importantly, though, the so–called experts are no better at this than you are. They can puts words to experiences, but their ability to experience wine is no different from yours.