Tuesday, February 5, 2008

What We Dare Not Discuss

We gush over the aromas of our wine, savoring its fine odors. We rhapsodize about the myriad tastes we find in wine. Strawberry, chocolate, leather, raspberry, vanilla, cinnamon, tobacco, and so much more. We praise the structure of a wine, relishing the long length of the finish. Yet despite all that we say, there is still one element of the wine which we omit to describe, except only tangentially.

It is the aspect of wine we dare not discuss. Yet it is an aspect that is probably one of the reasons we enjoy wine. So why don't we talk about it? Yes, I am guilty of this too. I have not spoken on this subject before. Maybe it is time to remedy the situation.

What initiated my thoughts in this area? While perusing Decanter magazine (Feb.2008), I read an interesting article by Andrew Jefford called "Wine: it's a drug too, you know." The article made me think.

First, Andrew mentions how alcoholism is a problem in Britain. This is obviously not unique to Britain. Alcoholism is a problem in the U.S. as well as all over the world. It is a serious problem that needs addressing. Alcoholism can be very destructive and I am sure that most of us have seen its adverse effects in family members or friends. But this is not the focus of my post, though maybe it needs its own post in the future.

Second, Andrew states that wine drinkers do not just enjoy wine for its aromas and flavors. They also enjoy the alcohol and how it makes them feel. Andrew goes on to say, "Most of us are in consequence mildly addicted to alcohol; I certainly am. (I define 'mildly' to mean that I could drink less or give up, but prefer not to.)" He continues, "Alcohol is an important part of the being of wine. It's the blood in wine's body." This is the point of my post.

I admit that I do enjoy the way the alcohol in wine makes me feel. It certainly provides a pleasurable feeling. It is an added bonus to the experience of the wine. Yet I previously never talked about it. When I review a wine, I omit that part of the experience from my discussion.

I don't recall any other wine blog that really talks about the effects of the alcohol either. At best, we may mention the alcohol content of a wine, but rarely, if ever, discuss the actual effects. We may complain about high alcohol wines but we don't admit that we do like how alcohol makes us feel. Maybe we should talk about it, put it on the table.

Do you enjoy how the alcohol in wine makes you feel? Do you get a euphoric lift from a bit of alcohol? Do you like that slightly altered state of mind? Why don't we discuss this aspect in our wine blogs? Is it a taboo subject that we would prefer remained concealed?

I think in part it is not considered proper to discuss such matters. We don't want to seem a lush or that we have a problem. We don't want to openly admit that we also enjoy the alcohol. It is so much more refined to discuss fruit flavors and finish rather than say how the alcohol affected us. Yet we cannot deny the alcohol plays its role in our enjoyment.

With a tendency of some wines to have more elevated alcohol levels, 15-16% or more, then the alcohol effects are more significant. As such higher alcohol wines are more popular, does this mean people are seeking a stronger feeling from alcohol? Even a couple alcohol % points make a serious difference in how a wine affects us.

If you don't think the alcohol matters, then would you switch to non-alcoholic wines? I don't really think I would enjoy them as a substitute. I also doubt many wine bloggers would make such a switch either. I don't see too many beer connoisseurs rushing to drink non-alcoholic beer.

A recent article by Janey Cromley of the Los Angeles Times talked about non-alcoholic wines. By law, such wines must contain less than .5% alcohol. The article mentions that Ariel Vineyards, owned by J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, sold 1.2 million bottles of non-alcoholic wine last year. That is surely a large amount of wine. But there is a question whether such wines can actually taste as good as an alcoholic wine.

So, can you admit that enjoy how the alcohol in wine makes you feel? Can you admit that the alcohol in wine enhances your pleasure of the wine?

Though I enjoy the effects of the alcohol in wine, it is but a single component of the whole. I need the entirety of the wine, including its aromas and flavors. If it were just about the alcohol, I would only be drinking vodka, tequila or rum. They are much stronger liquors than wine. No, I also need the myriad tastes found in wine, the limitless possibilities inherent in each bottle. Though I won't deny the allure of the alcohol in wine either. It is just being honest.


Anonymous said...

I don't mind discussing this topic. As a tour guide for California Wine Hikes, I am often asked if the group would be drinking wine before hiking, or even while hiking. My answer has always been "No" because of the possibility of impaired judgment when one is better advised to keep one's footing on the trail. As a business owner, there's also the liability issue: safety and alcohol don't walk hand in hand. So as a group, we enjoy our wine after the hike with lunch.

That being said, there's no denying that I enjoy how the alcohol in wine makes me feel, and I can easily admit a wine's alcohol enhances its pleasurable aspects. I'll agree, too, that alcohol alone cannot singularly account for wine's allure. For me, wine's allure rests in those very things you mention in your last paragraph. Plus it's a fine reward with which to toast one's accomplishments, whether indoors or out.

Robert McIntosh said...

I had an interesting conversation with a Master of Wine known for his technical interests, and he mentioned that alcohol was fully integral to the wine experience. Alcohol not only has a pleasurable effect, it also anaesthetises the palate, affecting what and how we taste, and also has an effect on the 'fullness' in the mouth. Alcohol-free wine is not wine at all, and never will be.

I also agree that talking about the effect seems difficult, but taken in moderation the effect is not all that great anyway.

Finally, i would counter your proposition that higher alcohol wines are there fore more popular, as there seems to be a definite move in the UK, and Europe I believe, for lower alcohol wines (at least in the Press). I think the 16% phenomenon is much more established with Californian wines and drinkers - so far.

Taster A said...

I might be the anomalous case, certainly at the other end of the bell curve. I do not like the effects of alcohol. In fact, I usually pour myself 1/3 of a glass and rarely consume more than a quarter of a bottle at a sitting. When I’m home, I always have it with a meal. But there is an adventure to wine that I do not find with other foods. What will it be like? Did I guess the pairing with the meal right? What can I taste and smell. There is so much to wine and it won’t ever taste the same.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Winehiker for being the first to come forward and comment on alcohol. Obviously you show responsibility by prohibiting alcohol prior to or during hiking. We can never forget how alcohol can negatively affect us in some activities, such as hiking or driving. Wine is certainly much more than just alcohol.

Robert, interesting comments from the Master of Wine on how alcohol affects the palate. I would generally agree that there are far more higher alcohol wines coming out of California. Though from what I have read, Europe went that route for a time and now there has been a backlash against high alcohol wines so maybe they will start to decrease there. I don't think California though is about to change any time soon.

Taster A, you are certainly on a different point of the spectrum than others. Though that is not a bad thing. Just different. I do agree that there is much to wine, so many different aspects. Alcohol is but only one of those aspects, just something I don't think many people dare to discuss.

12x75 said...

I think it's true how much alcohol can affect the palate. In fact when it's the first thing you taste when trying wine, it's generally not a great sign. Recently we wrote about non alcoholic wines non alcoholic wines - and as bizarre as this is for a wine blog to do - what that testing process did point out that even with traces of alcohol, literally the most minute amounts, you can get a better taste on the liquid. In fact with less alcohol the rest of the bottle was truly emphasised.