Monday, September 25, 2023

Low- and no-alcohol wines really do need to be the way of the future

When I was a teenager, drink-driving laws were being strongly emphasized in New South Wales (Australia). We had the state government slogan: “Under oh-5 or under arrest” (ie. BAC < 0.05%). I now live in Sweden, where the legal BAC limit is 0.02%. The modern world clearly takes drink-driving much more seriously than did my parents’ generation (the so-called Silent Generation), although the USA is still mostly using 0.08%.

So, low- and no-alcohol drinks are therefore now becoming quite popular. In my teenage years, I had borrowed my mother’s car in order to get my mates and I to the nearest pub on Friday night, and so I did not drink alcohol back then. This meant that I had to drink a lemon squash, or occasionally an orange juice, since most alternatives had alcohol in them.

Those days are gone (or I wouldn’t be writing this post); and that is the subject of this post.

Think before you drink

Recently, my wife and I celebrated 26 years since we met*, with an extremely good meal at the Picnic restaurant, in Uppsala (Sweden). Because we had driven there, we had a Nozeco non-alcohol sparkling wine with the meal. It was the only such wine that the restaurant had on it’s list. This wine is quite cheap and therefore tastes rather uninteresting. This type of thing is the (unfortunate) situation that the wine industry of the immediate future needs to address.

How do we go about making low- and no-alcohol wines that taste interesting? After all, as I have previously noted: Fruit wine and alcohol-free wines really are also wines.

Unfortunately, it has been noted that most reduced-alcohol wines are made through a mechanical process that also strips out some flavour, often making them unsatisfying for drinkers (Are alcohol-free wines drinkable, by wine drinkers?). As discussed in that link, the process usually involves the two steps of first fermenting the wine normally, and then trying to remove some or all of the alcohol. Alcohol can, for example, be evaporated from the finished wine (e.g. using a spinning cone).

An alternative is making the wine with less alcohol in the first place. For example, one can pick the grapes very early, before they produce much sugar; or stop fermentation with, say, 35 g of residual sugar. Lower-alcohol wines are also more common in cooler climates (e.g. Germany, Austria, New Zealand), since their grapes do not become super-ripe. Also, those natural wines made with native yeasts also tend to have lower alcohol, as the yeasts are often less efficient at boosting alcohol.

One other recent suggestion has been that careful vine-canopy management may be crucial (Doctored leaves the key to low-alcohol wines) — the idea is to pull off (say) the top third of leaves, so that the vines produces less sugar, and thus produce less alcohol, even though the grapes ripen normally.

We have therefore been told that: “While non-alcoholic wines have been around for years, new techniques that can retain aromas and textures are moving forward, with German research and producers at the forefront, creating higher quality N.A. wines” (Nonalcoholic wines: Emerging innovators and big guns enter the growing $56 million+ category). We need to hope that this innovation does, indeed, produce something good.

Which wines will do well in 2023?

Interestingly, Bob Campbell (at The Real Review), recently discussed whether wine shows should have a separate class for entries that have no, or very little, alcohol (NOLO). At the New Zealand International Wine Show, he and his colleagues decided, for the moment, “to mix the NOLO wines amongst the standard alcohol wines without identifying them to the judges. Each will stand on its own merit.” Currently, this will be a tough ask for the wines.

It has also been noted (State of the International Wine Market in 2022: New market trends for wines require new strategies) that: “While the OIV has released a definition of dealcoholized wines, the permitted oenological practices are still in discussion. Low-alcohol wines are not as clearly legally defined yet, and cannot be legally called ‘wines’ in many regions. Often, their classification depends on the national rules for wine taxes, if they depend on the level of alcohol, such as in the UK or Scandinavia.”

Sadly for the wine industry, beer and cider are obvious ways to go if we want lower alcoholic drinks, since they are made that way naturally, rather than having to be modified in some way. Indeed: “According to 2022 Nielsen data, beer makes up the vast majority of N.A. sales off premise, with 85 percent of the N.A. market, while wine makes up 13 percent and spirits just one percent of the sector” (Nonalcoholic wines: Emerging innovators and big guns).

It seems important to emphasize that: “while the number of teetotallers has grown slightly, this is essentially a trend of moderation, not abstention. Older age groups are moderating by cutting back on the number of days on which they drink; Millennials and Gen Z are alternating non-alcoholic drinks with alcoholic versions (so-called ‘zebra-striping’) when they socialise” (Alcohol-free wine’s promise needs buyer boost). So, it seems to be accepted that people are drinking “less but better wines”. So, we need the better wines to be lower in alcohol, if we wish to keep the volume up.**

Alcohol Action Ireland

The wine industry has recently been accused (by a number of people) of looking in the mirror — and “driving while looking into your rearview mirror isn’t just dangerous but woefully ineffective” (5 Key metrics to accelerate your wine and spirits sales). For example, the Wine Curmudgeon recently wrote about: BYOB and why it works for restaurants. In Australia, we resolved that issue back when I was at university 40 years ago — how can this still be an issue now? Searching for ways to seed the next generation of wine consumers will require premium low- and no-alcohol wines, instead of arguing about sales points. We have come a long way since the old days: No more than a litre of wine a day, recommends a 1950s French sobriety poster.

Note, finally, that I have not touched on the medical pressure regarding the potentially negative affects of wine. At one realistic extreme, it has recently been noted that there is a very strong move afoot to make drinking every bit as socially unacceptable as smoking (Wine = Cigarettes).

* For those of you who have been part of a couple longer than this, I will pull rank on you, anyway, by pointing out that I also migrated 15,000 km across the planet to live with this woman. Interestingly, our waitress at the Picnic restaurant had migrated from the USA to be with her Swedish husband. So, people do migrate TO Sweden!

** It is worth noting that the USA is reported to have approximately the same number of Baby Boomers (c. 69 million) as it does people in Generation X (c. 65 million), Millennial (c. 72 million), and Generation Z (c. 70 million) (Resident population in the United States in 2022, by generation). This balance matters when planning the future.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Do you know about snake wine?

Americans are quite familiar with the concept of a snake-oil salesman; and they have been told to avoid such a person at all costs. Even Australians, like myself, have heard of such things, although Australia has not been inhabited by such salesmen. However, how many of you are familiar with the concept of snake wine? If not, then you will know a bit more about it by the end of this post.

Snake wine

Snake wine is quite familiar to the people of Asia; and it is precisely what the name says it is — wine with a whole snake infused in it (as pictured above). Wikipedia notes:
Snake wine is an alcoholic beverage produced by infusing whole snakes in rice wine or grain alcohol. The drink was first recorded to have been consumed in China during the Western Zhou dynasty (c. 1040—770 BC), and is believed in folklore to reinvigorate a person, according to Traditional Chinese medicine. It can be found in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, North Korea, Goa (India), Vietnam, Okinawa (Japan), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and throughout Southeast Asia.
The idea is roughly the same as it was for snake oil. Venomous snakes are used, but a small amount of venom is considered to be stimulating to the person (including being an aphrodisiac) even though a large amount of it is deadly. In modern chemical terms, we recognize that the ethanol (ie. the alcohol used) disrupts the venom molecules, making the drink (usually) safe. Needless to say, shot glasses are used, for consumption; and it is not recommended to buy home-made versions.

In Asian culture, one can, of course, use other bits of the snake (such as the blood and bile), and even other types of animal, such as scorpions, geckos and sea-horses. It is said (What is snake wine and everything you should know about it) that the taste is quite strong, with the rice wine giving an earthy, sweet taste, and the snake adding a fish or chicken-like flavor to it.

The recipes are quite straight-forward (The curious case of snake wine: How this odd beverage is made). When you drink it, you do, however, need to allow for the idea that the snake in the wine bottle might simply be hibernating, rather than being dead (Man receives venomous bite from snake wine). You should also not, of course, confuse snake wine with modern western-style Asian wines (Is Chinese wine really so New World?).

A variety of snake wines

These ideas never seem to have penetrated to Australia, even though it has more snake species than anywhere else on the planet (see Snakes of Australia). Otherwise, snakes have long played many cultural roles elsewhere in the world (Everything you need to know about snakes):
Representing sin in Christianity, other cultures and religions view snakes more highly. In ancient Egypt the Egyptian Cobra adorned the crown of the Pharaoh. In ancient Greece they could be found in many medical symbols, such as the Rod of Asclepius, which is still used today. Further east in India, Hindus celebrate Nag Panchami, a day when snakes are venerated for their power over the rains. In China, the snake holds a place on the Zodiac calendar. And in non-Eurasian cultures, snakes were welcomed in Peru and Mexico, where they were revered as mortal forms of the gods.
At the other extreme, New Zealand has never had snakes at all; and, indeed, the government currently bans them completely. That is, there are no snakes in any of the zoos, nor can they be kept as pets in homes. You can check up on this in the YouTube video: Why snakes are illegal in NZ. However, sea-snakes do occasionally turn up on the seashores, as discussed in the YouTube video: Why are there so many snakes in NZ. *

* Mind you, the Ciatti Global Market Report 2023 notes: “New Zealand is the world’s sixth-largest wine exporter by value and the most export-focused wine industry in the world, with almost 90% of wine sales occurring outside the country.” So, they do not need any snake wine of their own.

Monday, September 11, 2023

How we choose which wines to buy / drink

In the wine industry, there is sometimes interest in how consumers (= customers) go about choosing the wines that they purchase / drink. For example, a couple of years ago we saw this interesting publication: Analysis of consumer preferences when choosing wine (by Viktoriia Lutskova, Irina Martirosyan and Larysa Krupytska). There are also dozens of web sites and online videos with advice for us on how to go about this.

One of the people who has long had an interest in this topic is Liz Thach, a freelance wine writer, wine market expert, researcher, educator and consultant based in Napa and Sonoma. One of her early excursions into the field was back in 2008: How American consumers select wine. Her conclusion was quite simple:
Americans’ reasons may not be that different from other consumers around the world. It turns out that American consumers who are faced with an intimidating wall of wine at grocery stores and wine shops often use the same selection methods as their counterparts in Europe and Asia. Likewise, when handed a wine list at a restaurant, American consumers will rely on the same cues as other global wine consumers.

Recently, she has returned to this field, with a group of colleagues (Andrea Dominici, Larry Lockshin and Leonardo Casini) from several universities: New survey reveals how consumers select wine: Taste trumps price.

For their work, in May 2023 a sample of 2,014 wine consumers was chosen from three countries, all of them major wine markets: Italy, Australia and the U.S.A. As far as the resulting data are concerned, we have been shown a table with a list of the 12 main factors used by the participants when selecting a wine, along with an Importance Score (out of 100 points) averaged for each of the three countries (a higher score indicates a more important criterion of choice). *

Now, speaking personally, I think in pictures, not numbers. So, I need to see a graph of the numbers, if I am going to work out what the numbers are telling me. Here is such a graph, for the tabled data, on the basis that it may help you, too.

Graph of the Importabce Score data.

Looking at this picture, it is immediately obvious that the wine-consumers of the USA and Australia do not differ much. Indeed, this is confirmed by my statistical calculation of the Correlation Coefficient = 96.1% similarity of their scores. Indeed, the only noticeable (but still small) differences between these two countries are for: Recommendation (USA higher), Variety (USA higher), Brand (USA higher), and Pairing (USA higher).

On the other hand, Italy is in quite a different ball-park. This is also confirmed by the Correlation Coefficients = 71.1% similarity with the USA and 65.7% similarity with Australia. Note that these similarities are not small (ie. they are greater than two-thirds). However, Food Pairing and Region of Origin are shown as massively more important for Italians, while Sustainability is also more important (shame on you Americans and Australians!). Price, on the other hand, is less important for Italians (you need to pay for the good stuff!).

Interestingly, Italians are apparently quite similar to Americans in terms of preference for Grape Variety, and also for Packaging Format. Not unexpectedly, all three countries place Taste as their No. 1 criterion.

Anyway, you can read Liz Thach’s own take on the data in the article linked above. These data have also been discussed (by Hannah Staab) in: 6 major differences between how Italians and Americans buy wine.

My basic question, though, is why is there no mention of what often seems to me to be the most obvious criterion: Value for money. Given two wines of equal quality, the obvious one to choose is the cheaper one; and given two wines of equal price, the one to choose is the wine of better quality. Quality is often measured using some sort of score provided by a wine commentator / critic, or also from wine-drinkers at some community site (or, these days, even from some sort of bot: Wine recommenders are no longer people). Indeed, a value-for-money method is the one that I use most often myself (see my post: Calculating value for money wines) — I care about the other wine characteristics, of course, but I am prepared to try a lot of different wines when it comes to taste.

There is also apparently no mention of Alcohol Content; but that, as a criterion, is a topic for another post.

* The actual methodology of calculation is described in the published article cited above.

Monday, September 4, 2023

Previously, it was thought better to feed babies wine rather than water!

 Seriously — that title is not click–bait. I will lead up to an explanation of it at the end of this post about some aspects of wine and health.

Humans have been interested in wine for several thousand years, because of the distinct effect that alcohol has on their bodies (see my recent post: The effects of alcohol on the human body). However, as with all bodily effects, we all know perfectly well that there are negative effects on those bodies as well as the desired ones. Nevertheless, what those negative and positive effects have been considered to be has changed over the centuries. Summaries of some of these ideas are the subject of this post.

Wine party

A recent summary of some of the current ideas is provided by: The truth about booze: How alcohol really affects your body, from first flush of happiness to hangover hell. This title gives you the general idea about the good and the bad effects.

The extent to which the negative effects can appear is known to be affected by how much alcohol you normally consume — we build up a resistance, the more we regularly drink. A recent research summary (Holding your liquor: Comparison of alcohol-induced psychomotor impairment with and without Alcohol Use Disorder) says this:

Data from three cohorts were evaluated to examine the acute effects of alcohol on psychomotor performance in light drinkers (LD), heavy drinkers (HD), and individuals with alcohol use disorder (AUD). In this sample of young adult drinkers, relative to the LD group, those with heavier drinking patterns (AUD and HD groups) showed greater behavioral tolerance to 0.8 g/kg alcohol, a dose typically associated with a binge drinking episode (peak BrAC = 0.09 g/dL), exhibited by reduced peak impairment and a quicker return to baseline performance on psychomotor measures.
One of the other major concerns about alcohol is summarized in: More evidence moderate drinking is good for your heart; also a reason. However, it has recently been mooted: Could the US be heading to two alcoholic drinks a week recommendation?

Oldies drinking wine

At one end of the age spectrum, it has been noted that: Older people do not know enough about the risks associated with drinking alcohol. This is summarized in a recent Scandinavian study:
A review on alcohol use among older adults, which is based on 51 research and development studies on the subject. When older people drink alcohol, it is usually wine. Alcohol is often associated with social engagement, gatherings and enjoyment of life in older people. However, several of the studies show that alcohol use can also be associated with difficulties such as social isolation, stress and illness, or life transitions such as retirement and bereavement. But for people in later life, alcohol use can be particularly challenging. The studies we reviewed show that older adults often don't recognize, or have a lack of knowledge about, the risks associated with drinking alcohol. Existing health challenges, as well as the risk of accidents and fall injuries, can be intensified when you drink. There are also a number of possible negative consequences for older people who combine drinking alcohol with the use of medicines.
Trust me: we older people can see no point to old age unless we can also do the things we want to do, including consumption of a glass or two of wine. On the other hand, we can't continue to pretend that we are still young, of course.

Mother drinking wine

Anyway, this discussion so far has been about the current century. What about previous centuries? There are a number of articles about this topic as written in Medieval times, or the Middle Ages, such as: What was the best wine in the Middle Ages? These are of considerable interest.

So, at the other end of the age spectrum from us oldies, my favorite article is this one: Medieval advice to pregnant mothers: Don’t drink water, have wine instead:
This examines a mid-fifteenth century medical treatise that dealt with gynecology, obstetrics and child-rearing, written by Michele Savonarola, the court physician of the Este family, rulers of Ferrrara. Savonrola was not only interested in making sure that the babies would be healthy, but also would be male. He believed that women could play an important role in the health, temperament and even sex of their unborn children. The best way they could do this was in the foods they ate. Savonarola believed that the effects of food were even greater for unborn children, and developed a list of foods which should be eaten or avoided. Among the recommendations made by the Italian doctor was to eat bread made from wheat instead of bran, avoid fried fish, be moderate in how much fruit to eat, and drink dry, red wine. Savonarola writes: “Beware of using cold water, it is not good for the fetus and it causes the generation of girls, so keep drinking wine.”
So, there you have it. Modern generations worry (quite rightly) about various aspects of wine, but at least they no longer have to worry about its effect on the the sex of their unborn child. They do, however, still have to care about any subsequent use of alcohol to cope with parenthood (Understanding mothers’ alcohol use: Is it problematic to drink like a “wine-mom”?).