Friday, May 3, 2013

Wine is stronger today than a few years ago, could fool some drinkers and cause health issues

According to a May 2 report from global news agency Agence France-Presse, “Wines are stronger today than they were two decades ago.” As this morning's article points out, there are health and driving-while-intoxicated ramifications.  

The screw-cap bottle is no longer the sole domain for wine with higher alcohol content. Despite a growth in the low-alcohol wine market segment, wine experts have noticed premium wines are packing more of a punch. The higher-than-expected concentration could have health consequences and may unexpectedly push a driver over the legal limit for driving.

More selective grape harvesting and even global warming are blamed for the use of grapes with higher levels of sugar, which translates into higher alcohol content in the wine.

Wine connoisseurs and critics may be to blame, too, “because drinkers have developed a passion for fruity, aromatic wines with round, silky tannins, encouraged by high ratings from critics,” concludes the AFP. “The quest for ripe tannins has led to grapes with more sugar.” (Tannins, more dominant in red wines, come from the skins, stems and seeds of the grapes and affect the way a wine “feels” in the mouth. Less-ripe tannins = drier wine.)

What this means to the wine drinker is more alcohol consumed today in two glasses of wine than in the same two glasses just a year or two ago. Going from a couple of glasses of wine with 12 percent alcohol content to the same size glasses with 16 percent alcohol, could push a person over the .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for driving. This trend in wine tends to skew the predictions of “safe driving” calculators that estimate a BAC level acceptable for driving based on a person's gender, weight and an “average” 5 oz. glass of wine at 12 percent alcohol. For example, a calculator could estimate a BAC of .064 for a 120 lb. woman who had two glasses of wine in a two-hour dinner assuming 12 percent alcohol. If the wine was actually 16 percent alcohol, her BAC could be .097 and over the limit.

Driving concerns aside, alcohol consumption causes alcohol use disorders, such as the disease of alcoholism, and also is linked by research to increased risk for several types of illness and injury, including cancer. Observational studies mention wine as reducing risk of some cancers (see related article), but evidence-based studies by Boston University earlier this year concluded “No amount of alcohol is safe." (see related article ) Alcohol-related illness or injury is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and worldwide.

Vintners are required to put the alcohol percentage on the wine label. U.S. law permits a 1.5 percent variance from the percentage printed on the wine label.

Here are alcohol percentage averages for wines from the Alcohol Content database:
Wine Coolers 4–7%
Table Wine general 8-14%
Claret 6-10%
Shiraz 10-14%
Rose 10.5%
White, medium 10.7%
White, dry 11.0%
Red, medium 11.5%
White, sparkling 12%
White, sweet 12.4%
Barley Wine 10–15%
Cabernet, Pinot Noir 11–14%
Dessert Wine 14-20%
Zinfandel 17-22%
Syrahs 17-23%
Port Wine 20%

Lower-alcohol versions of popular wine varieties are making it to beverage stores, however, as a result of health concerns. Richard Halstead, CEO of global market researcher Wine Intelligence, notes, “Alcoholic strength of wine is an issue that consumers take seriously across the world." According to beverage industry magazine Drinks International, "There has been widespread criticism of 15.5 percent alcohol blockbusters and requests for winemakers to aim lower."
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The wine industry acknowledges the boosted alcohol content was not their aim, that they were only catering to the palates of their consumers who preferred fruitier tastes.  The low-alcohol wine market seems to have some appeal to wine judges, however.  A Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon won a double Gold Medal at the America Fine Wine Competition despite being a lower-alcohol wine judged head-to-head with stronger Cabs.  The World Wine Championships awarded 91 points (rated Exceptional) to a low-alcohol white blend judged next to its sportier peers.  The lower-alcohol varieties are not risk free.