Monday, October 30, 2023

Viking wine, cider or mead?

According to Wikipedia:
Viking is the modern name given to seafaring people originally from Scandinavia (present-day Denmark, Norway and Sweden), who from the late 8th to the late 11th centuries raided, pirated, traded and settled throughout parts of Europe ... The Vikings had a profound impact on the early medieval history of Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, Estonia, and Kievan Rus. *
This is all very well, but what did they drink? After all, in Europe this was the Middle Ages or Medieval Period (which lasted approximately from the late 5th to the late 15th centuries). There seem to have been a couple of online articles about this topic recently; and so it is worth discussing.

Morrison tartan

Actually, this somewhat matters to my own ancestry, given that Morrison is actually a Scandinavian form of name. The ancestor from whom I inherited my surname actually migrated to Australia (where I was born) from Scotland, where there is a Morrison clan (with a tartan, as shown above). However, the Gaelic form of the name should actually be MacMorris, since that is how “son of Morris” is written in the Celtic languages. In Norway, however, the most common form is Morrison, in Denmark it is Morrisen, and in Sweden (where I now live) it is Morrisson.

So, I care what my ancestors drank. As an aside, I will also mention that originally the word “viking” (pronounced “vee-king” in Scandinavia) was a verb, not a noun, describing the raid for which the medieval Norsemen are historically best known. This is a case of the people being known to others for their actions, not their location.

Anyway, the most obvious recent article is in Swedish (Vikingarnas favoritdryck avslöjad), but is about The Vikings’ favorite drink revealed:
You might be thinking mead. When it comes to Vikings and drink, however, it is a completely different drink that dominates. The idea that the raw-barked and relatively primitive Norwegians would sip a glass of cider is perhaps not quite natural in the mouth? ... There is evidence of the production of cider already in the Roman Empire. At the same time, some claim that the Celtic Britons invented the drink, chronologically around the year 50 AD ... What we do know, however, is that the drink was already produced and sold in the 13th century in Norway. It was Cistercian monks from Great Britain who planted apples on the coast of the Hardangerfjord and taught the farmers there how to use the apples — among other things to make cider.
In Norse mythology, the goddess Idunn delivered apples to the gods to preserve their youth and immortality. The Vikings regarded apples as a treasure, and “we know that the Vikings loved to drink alcohol, and it is likely that they made something similar to cider with the apples. But the apples they had were native and not very good, so the Vikings would have used honey to sweeten it. But as soon as you add honey, it becomes mead, not cider, technically speaking,” explains Ellen Marie Naess, archaeologist at Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History. **

The BBC has also had a commentary on the topic: The rebirth of Norway's cider tradition.

Should you use a bucket or a carboy for primary fermentation?

I can confirm the modern popularity of home cider-making in Scandinavia, as well as the commercial stuff. My wife and I have made our own, as we have plenty of suitable trees. The apples are pressed at the local commercial press, which is very very busy in season. However, we are just as likely to make juice, which oodles of other people do, as well.

It is also worth noting here that cider is not necessarily dry, in taste. Indeed, Sweden's national liquor chain currently advertises 94 dry Scandinavian ciders versus 83 sweet ones.

As far as actual wine is concerned, any fruits are fair game in Scandinavia. In my own home, we regularly make wine from gooseberries and from cherries, both of which turn out well (ie. we are not embarrassed to give some of the resulting bottles to other people). These usually turn out fairly sweet (ie. not all of the sugar gets fermented), and they are therefore used as dessert wines. The same is true for the grape wines, which we can make from the very large vine on our garage. However, to my way of thinking, the wines never turn out as well as they should — the native grape-vines are, sadly, not a patch on the ones from down south.

As an aside, I will note that California has been known even to mix cider and wine: Sonoma’s co-ferments bring cider and wine together. The idea is that: “A local wine director thinks co-fermenting apples and grapes into pét-nat-style sparklers could help preserve Sonoma’s 150-year-old apple trees.” One can (as in the comment about mead, above) ask: Is this even wine? That is: “By focusing on co-ferments, hybrids and foraged ingredients, a natural wine movement is creating a more expansive and accessible definition of wine.”

Some home-made wines

Mead, as noted above, is made from honey (and water), to which is added extras ranging from fruits, grains, spices, and apparently even hops. In Viking times it was allegedly favored by the wealthy people, with one resembling the color of blood prized above all (What is Viking "Blod mjød" (Blood mead)?). Given the poor grape-growing climate, mead was clearly much more popular than wine.

In this sense, Medieval wines were being made elsewhere, while the Scandinavians were making cider and mead, and conducting raids. Some people have looked at this topic (Medieval and Renaissance wines: Taste, dietary theory, and how to choose the “right” wine [14th-16th centuries]), and come to the conclusion that: “Reconstructing the taste of wine made at the end of the Middle Ages and in the Reanaissance is a practically impossible task.” However, we do have some ideas about the topic (What was the best wine in the Middle Ages?). Sadly, these ideas “led the wine drinker to consider a dizzying variety of factors in making his choice.” So, you will not find it an easy topic, to either discuss or replicate.

* The Vikings also got to north-eastern North America (via Iceland and Greenland) 500 years before Columbus got to the Caribbean.

** Defining “wine” is not easy (Is the definition of wine changing? The push for ‘low-alcohol’ wines suggests so). In the E.U., for example, it currently must contain at least 8.5% alcohol by volume to be legally labeled as “wine”.

Monday, October 23, 2023

When is the wine industry going to wake up to itself?

I'm just a consumer who happens to write a blog about wine. Therefore, the concept of a global pool of excess wine does not affect me professionally. It does, however, concern me personally, not least because I grew up in Australia, and therefore a wine-supply problem in Australia does affect me personally. After all, this is where I first learned to appreciate good wine.

Well, recent media reports indicate that not only does the global wine industry have an excess pool, it has an excess lake. The way we are going, it will soon be an excess ocean. These metaphors seem quite apt. Clearly, the wine industry has an over–supply problem. What is to be done about it, and what is being done?

Wine lake drowning

It is ironic that a decade ago we were commenting on a lack of grapes (eg. April 2012): Winegrape shortage could last six to eight years:
After nearly 10 years of oversupply and low prices, California winegrapes and bulk wines are suddenly in a position of scarcity. Wineries are scurrying to find grapes and secure vineyard assets, while negociant wineries see their wine sources dwindling.
Well, that decade has now well and truly passed. These days, we are now getting headlines like these examples, instead:

It’s the million-litre question. what should happen to Australia’s excess wine?
Is anyone interested in buying a million litres of 2021 and 2022 Australian Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot? It tastes OK, apparently, and could be yours for just US$0.20 a litre. [However,] wine is not water, or milk or Coca Cola or even beer. Producing even the most basic red or white is harder and more susceptible to the changing climate. Selling it cheaply does little to convey that truth to the people who buy it. Instead of trying to get $200,000 for those tankfuls of excess wine, the Australian government would do better to follow the European model of funding its distillation.
DOC Rioja recommends moratorium on new vine planting
There are various reasons for these measures but the main driving force is the massive quantities of excess, unsold wine that has been accumulating since 2018. While there have been no absolute, official figures on the complete total, various people within the wine trade in Rioja have stated unverifiable figures that range from 100—150 million liters. This money has formed the base of a plan during the summer that was launched to distill excess wine, paying 0.86€/l for up to 17.5 million liters from 113 approved. Apparently some wineries had too much wine to qualify. Additionally, over 83kg million of grapes were to be purchased by the state to offset excesses from the harvest directly.
Note the two quite different payment prices in those two quotations. [Rioja gets >4 times the Australian amount!]

Struggling French winemakers may have to destroy their vintage cellars to survive
According to the local farmers' association, a fall in demand for wine has led to overproduction, a sharp fall in prices and major financial difficulties for up to one in three wine makers in the Bordeaux region. An initial European Union fund, capped at €160 million for wine destruction has been increased to €200 million by the French government.
French wine growers destroy gallons of Spanish cava in 'economic war'
French winegrowers hijacked lorries entering from Spain and dumped thousands of bottles of rosé and cava into the road to protest against what they claim is unfair competition. The French vintners said they were protesting against the unfairly low prices of foreign wine that they cannot match, leading to difficulties in selling their own products. Thousands of gallons of rosé were emptied into the street and 10,000 bottles of sparkling Spanish wine were smashed.
Global oversupply expected to continue despite below average harvest in 2023
Early estimates indicate that global wine production in 2023 will be below average for the fifth year in a row; however, it is still expected to exceed demand by around 10 per cent, as wine consumption continues its long-term decline.
Well, doesn’t that say it all? If you haven’t got the global message by now, then you probably never will get it. Look at the next graph. In most countries, production is not increasing, so that over-supply must logically involve decreasing consumption. Unless we can increase consumption, then we must also decrease production, unless we are to continue looking like idiots. If you can’t sell all of your product, then stop producing so much of it!

Global wine production by country 2011–2023. OIV,

Indeed, the above sorts of  headlines have been coming for quite some time. Even back in 2020 there was talk of excess grapes:

American wine report warns of over-supply and under-consumption
Rob McMillan in his Silicon Valley Bank 2020 State of the Wine Industry Report: “This oversupply, coupled with eroding consumer demand, can only lead to discounting of finished wine, bulk wine and grapes. U.S. wine consumers will discover unprecedented retail value in 2020 and should buy up.”
Wine prices slated to dwindle over excess grape supply, experts say
The price of wine is slated to drop this year due to an excess supply of grapes, ultimately giving wine connoisseurs something to raise a glass to.
And previously in 2021:

Wine makers see 'oversupply' as industry brave wildfires, water shortage

It is not immediately obvious to me that there has been any concerted response to these warnings. This is, of course, why we now stand where we do. Indeed, the French Agriculture Minister (Marc Fesneau) has said that the wine industry needs to “look to the future, think about consumer changes ... and adapt” (France’s destruction of surplus wine hints at an existential wine crisis). Quite why the British keep increasing their grape plantings is therefore not immediately obvious (Vineyards become the fastest growing crop in England).

Supply versus demand

This raises the obvious question: When did the over-supply (ie. over-planting) start? Well, I showed in an earlier post (using a graph) that global wine production has exceeded global consumption since way back in the early 1960s (The smallest global wine production for 55 years?). So, none of this is recent news.

As a final aside, this situation may seem to be somewhat similar to the recent drop in sales of new electric vehicles (Are EV sales declining? Electrifying the car market may be getting harder; Why EVs are piling up at dealerships in the U.S.). In this case, it is reported that we have saturated the current market for pure electric vehicles (as opposed to hybrids), and so sales of new ones have slowed down notably. However, in the case of the wine industry it is, instead, the fact that the marketplace has moved on (to other drink preferences) that has caused the slowdown in sales, not market saturation.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Having multiple expert wine assessments is important

One thing for which the wine industry has often been looked down upon is having Experts, who tell us which wines are Good. Indeed, we even have recognized International Experts, whose pronouncements can have a big influence on wine sales (eg. in my lifetime, Jancis Robinson in the UK, or Robert Parker in the USA). However, this idea hits a brick wall when we try to do factual research experiments in the wine industry.

Scientists insist upon what they call Replication, which means attempting to measure the same thing several times independently. That last word is important. It means that, if a wine is tasted in a scientific experiment, then multiple people must taste it, and the experimental result will be a combination of all of these tastings, not just the pronouncement of any one person.

This leads me to ask: which has the biggest affect on the experimental outcome of assessing wines — differences among the people or differences among the wines? Let’s look at a specific example.

Wine experts

The example that I will look at here was published as: The scent of the fly (Journal of Chemical Ecology 44: 431–435, 2018). This looks at the idea that a container of wine can be spoiled by even a single vinegar fly (Drosophila melanogaster). Six different experiments were conducted, each comparing two different “treatments” that might affect the smell of a fly in a wine glass (including the chemical associated with the flies, called Z4-11Al).

To address this topic, the people involved in assessing the wine were:
Eight members (comprised of two women and six men) of the sensory panel for organoleptic tests for the wine-growing area of Baden [Germany] evaluated the odor of D. melanogaster and synthetic Z4-11Al. Members of this panel have been trained and selected for the official quality assessment of wines produced in Baden, at the Federal Institute for Viticulture, Freiburg, Germany. Each test comprised three glasses, a control and two treatments, which were presented in random order. The panel was asked to score odor intensity, ranging from 1 (weak, silent) to 9 (strong, loud), and to comment on odor quality.
So, in this case we can have a look at how much variation there was in the final set of smell scores due to both: (i) the different experimental treatments, and (ii) the different people doing the sniffing. I won’t bore you with the details, but the following graph shows you the Maximum / Average / Minimum difference in scores for the people when each of them compared the same two treatments for each experiment.

Graph of wine smell assessments

Note that for Experiments 4 and 5 there is a big range of scores between the panelists, compared to Experiments 1, 2 and 3, for example, and especially compared to Experiment 6. Apparently, there can be quite some differences between what the people smelled, each time. So, replication of the people was clearly important in this experiment.

However, what we are actually most interested in is whether there was any consistency as to which panelists differed from the others. That is, did any one panelist, for example, consistently give higher or lower scores than the other panelists?

The answer here is: No. Once again, I will not bore you with the details, but a Two-Factor Analysis of Variance (with no replication)* shows that 85.2% of the experimental variation is associated with the variation between the experimental treatments, and only 6.5% is associated with any variation between the panelists. This is the sort of result that scientists like (ie. consistency)! **

Scientist and wine

I chose this experiment as my example simply because it came along recently in my reading. Nevertheless, it does show that replicate people are important to have in experiments, because they are different from each other, but that they are not always different in any consistent way. This applies just as much to experiments in the wine industry as to anywhere else.

We might all like it if the same could be said of so-called Wine Experts, in general. To me, there is nothing more useless than wine advice from someone whose tastes consistently do not match my own. So, since I have a science background, I always insist that at least two Experts must pronounce a wine to be good value-for-money before I will consider purchasing it (see my post: Calculating value for money wines).

* See LibreTexts Statistics for an explanation.

** The authors’ final conclusion is that that their experiments: “corroborate the observation that a glass of wine is spoilt by a single D. melanogaster fly falling into it, which we here show is caused by Z4-11Al.”

Monday, October 9, 2023

What amount of wine intake maximizes happiness?

Presumably, we all want to be happy, to one extent or another; and many people have a glass of wine to help them achieve this desirable state. However, we also all know about the unhappy problems of “drinking too much”. So, where is the balance? In this post, I do some mathematical calculations to make a specific suggestion (an actual wine value).

I will work at the inter-national level, because that is the dataset that I currently have. Of course, this is a very coarse scale at which to work, but needs must. So, I will compare national wine consumption (average per person) with reported national happiness, for a range of countries, to find the simple relationship between these two things.

Total national wine consumption 2022

My national wine-consumption data come from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), who have produced a report on the State of the World Vine and Wine Sector in 2022. This lists the liters of wine consumed per capita, for those 22 countries that consumed at least 2 million hectoliters of wine in 2022 (as shown in the figure above).

This is standard stuff in the wine industry. However, how many of you have also heard of the United Nations’ World Happiness Report? This was also published in 2022; and reportedly:
is based on Gallup surveys where the population estimated their own perceived happiness. The list focuses on factors such as social support, income, health, freedom, generosity, and lack of corruption.
You can read up on this set of surveys for yourselves, or you can consult my earlier blog post (Wine and world happiness). However, I wish to make a couple of things very clear about the combined final Happiness score for each of the countries. As you will notice in the following figure, showing the top 24 happiest countries: the Nordic countries occupy six of the top eight places (I currently live in Sweden),* with Australia (where I was born) at no. 12. I refuse to live in a country where the people are unhappy!

Estimated national happiness in 2022

Anyway, my objective here is to directly compare wine consumption with happiness, which I have done in the following scatterplot. Each point represents one of the 22 countries, based on both of its data values (consumption horizontally and happiness vertically). The curved line is the quadratic regression, showing the best—fit relationship between the two sets of data. This shows that the happiest people are those with middling wine consumption, rather than either of the two extremes.** This should surprise no-one. Moreover, wine seems to account for nearly 50% of the variation in happiness between countries!

The two pink lines show an average (personal) wine consumption of one bottle per week (on the right) and a half-bottle per week (on the left). The maximum happiness, as estimated from the regression line, is an average of 0.73 liters of wine per week. [NB: a standard wine bottle contains 0.75 liters.]

So, there you have it. Those of you consuming one bottle of wine per week are already doing as well as you can expect. Any less than this and you will be less happy; any more than this and you also risk being less happy. You should note, however, that the recommendation is somewhat less than the traditional: “a glass a day keeps the doctor away” (c. 70% of it, in fact).

As but one example, French prefer rosé to red wine tells us: “according to statistics from the Comite National des Interprofessions des Vins a Apellation D’Origine (CNIV), the average wine consumption [in France] is now 40 litres per person a year rather than 100 litres in 1975.” This change will have resulted in a great happiness improvement for the French!

Relationship of wine consumption and happiness

To me, this can form yet another argument in favor of continued wine consumption, against the current social attacks, where even moderate drinking is considered to be bad for your health (Is alcohol the new tobacco?). My distinction here is between mental health and bodily health — we need to produce more stories about how wine is part of a healthy lifestyle for our minds. This goes along with The Mondavi Defense (as presented by Tom Wark).

I freely admit that this is only an approximate data analysis, since it is at the scale of national averages. For example, the wine data do not account for variations in alcohol content; and nor do the happiness data account for within-country social variation, for example. However, if any of you know of any other way to do this, then I, for one, will be very happy to see the results. Of course, there are also other things that are related to happiness (6 things that make people happy according to scientists).

* You might also like to consult: The steady wine markets of Denmark and Sweden, which notes that “according to Wine Intelligence, there are more weekly wine drinkers in Sweden now than before the pandemic, making up 34% of the population.” If you want to pursue the topic of the cultural differences within the Nordic region, then take a look at The Geography Bible video on: What if the Nordic countries united? (There is also a video about What are the world's happiest and unhappiest countries?)

** In spite of the curvature, this is what is called a “linear effect”. Non-linear effects occur very rapidly, almost in the blink of an eye. A classic example is the recent effects of Climate Change (Why are climate impacts escalating so quickly?).

Monday, October 2, 2023

Where is the current value-for-money in wine exports?

As I explained in a much earlier post, I base my own wine purchases mainly on value for money. That is, I do not buy the highest-scoring wines, nor do I purchase the most-expensive (or cheapest) wines. Instead, I buy the wines that seem to offer the biggest bang for my buck — this combines the scores and the expenses into a single number (Choosing value-for-money wines).

Therefore, it always seems odd to me when I read reports that talk about individual broad-scale wine-industry characteristics (such as cost and volume), without ever comparing them with each other. The concept of value-for-money, for example, extends well beyond the relatively simple idea of a wine drinker buying individual wines.

A recent case in point comes from the World Bulk Wine Exhibition: Dissimilar performances among the world’s leading bulk wine exporting countries.

That online article is about the top bulk wine exporters for January—May 2023, and lists the top 15 bulk-wine exporting countries based on value (million euros, €) and volume (million hectoliters, hl). However, to my mind, neither of these characteristics on their own tells us how well the various countries are doing. For example, it is no use selling lots of wine if you have to sell it very cheap.

We can see this clearly, in this case, by the simple procedure of plotting a single graph showing both numbers for each country. I have done this in the graph below. Each point represents one of the 15 countries, with value plotted horizontally and volume vertically. The straight line is the linear regression, which indicates the average form of the relationship between the two sets of numbers.

Graph of volume versus value for bulk wine exports

I have labeled four of the countries, to illustrate value for money. The two countries above the line are doing very poorly (lots of volume but nor much value), and the two countries below the line are doing very well (less volume but lots of value).

To make this clear in a table (or list), the thing to do is calculate the value for money, calculated as: € per hl. I have done this in the following table. This makes it obvious that New Zealand is doing twice as well as the second-ranked country (France), and two-and-a-quarter times as well as the USA. Similarly, Canada is doing very poorly, while Spain, Slovakia and North Macedonia are doing twice as well, but are still not doing really well.

Table of value for money in bulk wine exports

The concept of value for money is an important one; and I do wish that more of the people who present data for the wine industry would take it into account, when preparing their data presentations. In the meantime, you could do a lot worse than check out this year’s Bulk Wine Exhibition.

As a final point, it is also important to emphasize, as Robert Joseph has done recently, that value-for-money is often enforced by circumstances rather than being chosen by the producer. Spain’s poor showing above, for example, is quite likely to be enforced by their current over-production of cheap wine compared to demand. In this sense, it is perhaps fortunate that we are apparently now seeing the Smallest Spanish harvest ever recorded, with the steepest losses being seen in the hottest cultivation areas — reduced volume might restore the value-for-money.