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Alcohol: Wine’s Seductress with a Punch

After water, alcohol is the most significant part of wine and has plenty of seductive qualities to offer. It supplies calories, stimulates the appetite, offers gustatory pleasure, and leads to relaxation, more social interaction and procreation. Alcohol contributes body, texture, intensity and sweetness that makes fruit in wine seem fuller and broader. Since it is a solvent, alcohol can extract more flavor out of skins, pips and oak barrels. Many consumers, and even wine critics, are easily seduced by the plush wines with elevated alcohol levels, and some drinkers even equate high alcohol with quality. Others are perfectly happy with higher alcohol wines as long as they are balanced. Alcohol can confer health benefits on drinkers, giving those who consume it in moderation and regularly with meals as part of a healthy lifestyle, a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, some cancers and preservation of cognitive function as well as increased longevity. The J-shaped curve for longevity has been validated by extensive epidemiological studies and is accepted almost as a rule of nature wherever health and alcohol consumption is debated.

Despite its allure, and the happy buzz that accompanies its ingestion, alcohol can be devilish. At higher levels, it suppresses fruit aromas on the nose by secluding aroma molecules, preventing them from being released into the air. Alcohol has no taste per se, but can overpower the palate preventing recognition of nuances in wine, and disguising terroir by obscuring flavors. At levels of 15% or more in wine, it can cause a burning sensation in the nostrils and create a devilish sense of bitterness and heat on the finish. Alcohol is often the bane of sommeliers, who find it can disrupt balance in wine, diffuse the taste buds, and create an undesirable amplification of certain elements of a dish. Noted sommelier, Rajat Parr, remarked (SFGate, April 20, 2006), “People say Pinot Noir goes well with fish, but not if its 15.6% alcohol. That’s so hot, it’s going to burn your mouth.” Alcoholic beverages challenge our human frailties, because if it tastes good, we want to drink plenty of it. Excessive alcohol intake (more than 2-3 standard drinks a day for men and 1-2 standard drinks a day for women) can lead to a plethora of health problems, including sudden death from high blood pressure, heart attack, cardiac arrhythmia, or stroke. Constant over drinking can result in cardiac myopathy, cirrhosis of the liver, osteoporosis, constant gastritis, tremors, dementia, cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, stomach, colon and breast.

Alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol) is a clear liquid that burns (oxidizes) easily. In the early 1700s, the alcohol content of distilled beverages was determined using gun powder. A beverage would be “proved” acceptable by pouring on some gunpowder and lighting it. Alcohol is also completely miscible in water and this is a significant feature that accounts for its effects on the human body (see discussion of alcohol metabolism below). It is an organic compound composed of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen with a chemical formula of C2H5OH. Ethyl alcohol is created in wine when yeasts ferment the sugars in grape juice producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Roughly, grapes picked at 22º Brix will yield a wine with 12% alcohol and no residual sugar (Brix x .55 = alcohol % in finished wine).

Alcohol levels in wine have risen significantly over the last few decades and there have been a number of articles in the wine press written by notable critics such as Lettie Teague (Wall Street Journal), Eric Asimov (New York Times), and Dan Berger (Santa Rosa Press Democrat) profiling the high alcohol content of popular wines. The Australian Wine Institute published research in 2005 of wine samples collected between 1984 and 2004 (P.W. Gooden and M. Gishen, “Trends in the composition of Australian wine 1984-2004,”) and found a higher alcohol trend in white wines until 2000 at which time alcohol levels began to decline: 12.2% in 1984, 13.2% in 2000, and 12.5% in 2001. Red wines showed a consistent increase in alcohol from 12.4% to 14%. A similar study in California showed that average alcohol levels in wine rose from 12.7% in 1971 to 14.8% in 2001, the result of the average level of brix at harvest rising from 20.5 in 1971 to 24.2 in 2001. Data from the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), reported in Wine & Spirits (Fall 2010), indicated that the quantity of higher alcohol wines produced in the United States over the last decade increased 50% on a relative basis to 9% of bottled still wines. Alcohol levels are on the rise in France as well, as shown by the 2009 vintage in Bordeaux. Many of the wines have alcohol levels of 14% and some are even higher. Terte Rotebeouf struts 15.6% alcohol and nearby Chateau Tropolong has 15.5% alcohol in the 2009 vintage.

There are many reasons for escalating alcohol levels in wine: climate change (global warming), the increase in vineyard plantings in warmer climates in North America, rootstocks, clones, canopy management, stylistic preferences (longer hang times, picking riper grapes), more efficient cultured yeasts that can survive at higher levels of alcohol, and higher scores (“Parker Effect”) that lead to more sales and resulting economic success.

Surveys have indicated that alcohol levels in wine are usually not a factor when consumers choose a wine. Many wine drinkers do not even realize that the alcohol percentage in the bottle is written in tiny print on the front or back label. Alcohol percentage by volume must be on the label unless the wine is 14% or less, in which case the bottler can choose to print, “table wine” or “light wine.” Wine above 14% is considered “dessert wine” by the TTB. You can’t always take the alcohol percentage on a label at face value since the TTB allows a range of tolerance. Wines of 14% alcohol or less are allowed 1.5% error and wines over 14%, 1% error. Therefore, a wine that is 12.5% alcohol may be labeled anywhere from 11.0% to 14.0% alcohol. A wine labeled 15.0% might be anywhere from 14.01% to 16.0% alcohol. A wine with more than 14% alcohol cannot be labeled as containing less and vice versa. Despite the TTB regulations, a recent study reported in Wine & Spirits (Fall 2010) found that 10% of the wines they tested significantly exceeded the legal boundaries. The point taken is that wines can have significantly more alcohol than the stated percentage on the label.

A majority of the population is largely unfazed by higher alcohols and this is determined genetically. 50% of the population have one dominant and one recessive gene for taste and are termed “regular” tasters. They choose moderate flavors and are only mildly sensitive to tannin, sugar, and high alcohol. 25% of the population are recessive for both genes and are called “non-tasters.” They prefer intense tastes, sweet wines and heavy alcohol. The remaining 25% have two dominant genes for taste and are termed “supertasters” or “hypertasters.” Hypertasters prefer softer flavors in wine and have a disdain for sweet wines, heavy tannins and high alcohol. There are greater numbers of women and Asians who are hypertasters.

The practical implication of rising alcohol percentages in wine is related to drinking in moderation. In 2005, the United States government conceded in its Dietary Guidelines for Americans published that year that alcohol in moderation may offer health advantages. “Alcohol may have beneficial effects when consumed in moderation in middle-aged or older adults. The lowest all-cause mortality occurs at an intake of one to two drinks per day. The lowest coronary heart disease mortality also occurs at an intake of one to two drinks per day. Morbidity and mortality are highest among those drinking large amounts of alcohol. Those who choose to drink alcoholic beverages should do so sensibly and in moderation - defined as the consumption of up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. It is not recommended that anyone begin drinking or drink more frequently on the basis of health considerations.”

A standard drink (referred to as a unit outside the U.S. and varying widely from 7.9 g alcohol in the UK to 19.75 g in Japan) is not specifically defined in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but it is generally considered to contain 17.7 ml (14 grams) of ethyl alcohol which is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or a shot of 80-proof distilled spirits. A full bottle of wine contains 5 to 7 standard drinks depending on the wine’s alcohol percentage. To determine the number of standard drinks in a particular bottle of wine, multiple 750 ml by the alcohol percentage and divide by 17.7. For example, a bottle of 13.0% alcohol wine will contain 750 ml x 0.13 = 97.50 divided by 17.7 = 5.5 drinks. Contrast this with a bottle of 16% alcohol wine which contains 6.8 drinks or about one and a half more drinks than a bottle with 13% alcohol. Another way to look at it is that a bottle of wine at 15% contains 15% more alcohol than a bottle of wine containing 12%. This illustrates the fact that alcohol percentage does make a difference when the consumer is looking to drink in moderation. The choice of a wine at 14.5% over a wine at 12.5% can increase an individual’s alcohol intake by 50 to 60 g a week.

Alcohol is primarily absorbed in the stomach (20%) and small intestine (80%) by simple diffusion into the blood. It takes less than 20 minutes after ingestion for any amount of alcohol to appear in the blood and peak blood alcohol concentrations after ingestion of one standard drink are achieved in fasting people within 30 to 45 minutes depending on the amount ingested and the time of the last meal. As noted above, alcohol is readily soluble in water, is readily distributed throughout the body in the aqueous blood stream after ingestion, and quickly crosses biological membranes to affect many organs of the body. After alcohol is absorbed, an equilibrium occurs so that all parts of the body contain approximately the same concentration of alcohol.

Alcohol is detoxified and removed from the blood through oxidation. A very small amount of alcohol is not metabolized and is excreted unchanged in the breath, sweat, feces, milk, saliva and urine. A small amount of alcohol is metabolized in the stomach, but 95% of ingested alcohol is metabolized in the liver where an enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) mediates the conversion of alcohol to the toxic acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is then rapidly converted to nontoxic acetate by acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) and glutathionine and eventually metabolized to carbon dioxide and water. Alcohol is also metabolized in the liver by the enzyme cytochrome P450IIE1 (CYP2E1). Alcohol leaves the body at a much slower rate than entering. Generally, one standard drink of wine can be eliminated in one hour.

There are many factors that will affect absorption and metabolism of alcohol and the resulting blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Food in the stomach delays the absorption of alcohol by slowing gastric emptying. Food does not absorb the alcohol. Strenuous activity also delays gastric emptying. The time over which alcohol is drunk will affect the BAC. The faster your drink, the higher your peak BAC will be. The alcoholic concentration of the beverage will determine how quickly alcohol is absorbed. Generally, the stronger the drink, the more rapidly it is absorbed because the alcohol overwhelms ADH enzymes in the stomach. Very high concentrations of alcohol may actually delay absorption to some degree presumably by decreasing the movement of alcohol from the stomach into the small intestine. Warm alcohol is absorbed quicker than cold alcohol.

Experienced drinkers develop a tolerance to alcohol and their livers tend to break down alcohol more efficiently. Heavier people are less affected by alcohol than lighter people as they have more blood and water in their bodies to dilute the alcohol. Overweight drinkers will have a higher BAC than a muscular person that weighs the same and drinks the same amount of alcohol because muscle tissue has more blood to dilute the alcohol. Healthier people and those free from physical, mental or emotional fatigue or stress will break down alcohol faster because the livers work more efficiently. The ability to metabolize alcohol tends to diminish with age.

Whether the drinker is a male or female makes a significant difference. Women reach higher BACs faster because they have less water in their bodies and more fatty tissue, which is not easily penetrated by alcohol. In addition, women tend to be lighter, have less ADH in the stomach and liver, and therefore metabolize alcohol less efficiently. Woman will have their highest BAC pre menstrual and women taking birth control pills will absorb alcohol faster resulting in higher BAC levels.

There are five different ADH genes so the ability to oxidize ethyl alcohol is dependent on the genetic makeup of an individual. Many Asians have a nonfunctional ALDH2 gene leading to the accumulation of acetaldehyde after alcohol consumption, causing the so-called Asian Flush, a complex of symptoms consisting of flushing or reddening of the face, neck, shoulder and even entire body along with headaches. An accumulation of acetaldehyde can also be caused by a nonfunctional ADH1B enzyme, increasing the production of acetaldehyde by more rapid metabolism of alcohol.

BAC is measured in percentages. For example, a BAC of 0.10 percent means that a person has 1 part alcohol per 1,000 parts blood in the body. In the United States, 0.08% is the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle (0.04% or more if you drive commercial vehicles and 0.01% or more if under the age of 21). There are many blood alcohol concentration (BAC) charts available showing the approximate BAC after consuming alcoholic beverages. One example is given below. These tables are rough approximations and can vary greatly among different individuals.

I have not seen any BAC charts specific for wine so I decided to do a little research on my own. I personally can definitely tell the difference between imbibing a wine with 12% alcohol and one with 15% alcohol, even after spitting instead of swallowing. It seemed to me that when I swallowed, I arrived at or exceeded legal intoxication with higher alcohol wines when imbibing two drinks within an hour on an empty stomach.

I enlisted two friends, a notable winemaker in Santa Barbara County and her husband, to join me as guinea pigs in my experiment. Seven Pinot Noirs (North American and International) were used with alcohol percentages varying between 12.5% and 15.5% at 0.5% intervals. The alcohol levels of the wines sampled by the winemaker and her husband were checked by lab equipment against the labeled alcohol percentage. The alcohol levels on the labels did not match the levels determined by lab testing indicating the difficulty in carrying out a reliable study. Here were the results of the wines tested (label alcohol % first and lab determined alcohol % in bold): 13.0% 13.75%, 13.5% 13.07%, 14.0% 13.97%, 14.5% 14.45%, 15.1% 15.54%, 15.5% 15.5%. Because the 13.0% and 13.5% wines (both were international wines) were closer to vice versa, I switched the results of these. Since I did not have a method of accurately determining alcohol percentage at home, my results are based on the labeled alcohol percentage.

The procedure was as follows. Test subjects imbibed one standard drink of Pinot Noir (5 oz) over 10 minutes and a breathalyzer reading was taken 20 minutes later to minimize error caused by alcohol in the mouth. A second standard drink of Pinot Noir was ingested over 10 minutes and a second breathalyzer reading taken 20 minutes after that. In addition to breathalyzer readings at 30 and 60 minutes, a reading at 90 minutes was also taken. All testing was done on an empty stomach and no food was ingested during the testing.

An AlcoHawk PRO handheld breathalyzer was used for the testing. This is one of the most accurate semiconductor-oxide breathalyzers available ( Readings with any breathalyzer can be variable depending on a number of factors including body size, red blood cell count, body and breath temperature and lung volume, but breathalyzers are a stand alone testing method in common use for medical and legal purposes. A study reported this year in Wired magazine on the AlcoHawk PRO indicated the readings were consistent but it tended to read high.

On the following pages are three charts showing the results. On the x axis are the blood alcohol concentrations in percentage determined by the breathalyzer. The y axis shows the time intervals. There are separate charts for the two men tested (Male 1 and Male 2) and one chart for the Female tested. Male 1 was 5’10’’ and 195 lbs, Male 2 was 5’9” 180 lbs and the Female was 5’6” 140 lbs. All were over the age of 40.

What conclusions can we draw from this study?

(1) When the same wines were tested for Male 1 and Female, the Female had consistently higher BAC at every time interval with each wine. This confirms expectations. The Female also maintained a higher BAC at the 90 minute interval indicating a reduced ability to metabolize the rapidly absorbed alcohol.
(2) Wines with higher alcohol percentages did not consistently produce higher BACs although there were suggestions of this in the data, especially for Male 2. This did not confirm expectations. There may be unexplained differences among wines that affect their absorb-ability beyond alcohol level percentage. Even though the 15.1% and 15.5% labeled wines had almost identical alcohol percentages by lab testing, the findings were different for the two wines for both Male 1 and Female.
(3) In both Male 1 and Female, their BAC was at or above the legal limit of 0.08% after two drinks at 60 minutes and remained so with every wine in the case of the Female at 90 minutes.
(4) Male 2 (myself) showed more tolerance to alcohol with only the highest alcohol percentage wine producing a BAC above 0.08% at any time interval (60 minutes only).
(5) To reach any valid conclusions, several subjects of the same size would have to be tested using the same wines at the same temperature under identical conditions and blood alcohol concentrations measured by blood samples rather than breathalyzer testing. Any volunteers?

Do alcohol levels in wine matter? Well, higher alcohol wines will sure get you sideways a lot quicker. Do they provide more pleasure? I don’t know for sure, but when I checked some dead horses in my study that I have kept for years to remind me of wines that were incredible, I discovered the range of alcohol was 10.5% to 13.5%. The main point though is, alcohol percentage does matter when you are looking to drink in moderation. One would want to scale back the volume of wine drinking when imbibing a wine with a higher alcohol percentage (above 14.5%) or reach for a lower alcohol wine to insure that you stay within the confines of “moderation,” and to avoid the risks associated with heavy alcohol intake.

In Volume 8, Issue 17 of the PinotFile, I surveyed alcohol levels of the 2007 vintage for Pinot Noir from each of the major Pinot Noir producing appellations in California, the Willamette Valley of Oregon and New Zealand. My findings indicated that one should look for Pinot Noirs from Oregon, New Zealand and the Sonoma Coast if drinking Pinot Noirs under 14.0% is important to you. Although I did not survey Burgundy, obviously the Pinot Noirs from this region would qualify as well. Look to these California producers for Pinot Noirs consistently under 14.0% alcohol: Au Bon Climat, Cobb, Dutton-Goldfield, george, Freestone, Kendric Vineyards, Lane Tanner, Rhys Vineyards, Rivers-Marie, Littorai, McHenry Vineyard, Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Schug Carneros Estate, and Williams Selyem.

New regulations for the European wine industry currently allow up to a 2% adjustment in alcohol levels. Southern France is now exporting wines that have alcohols reduced to 9% to 11% using new technologies. These reduced alcohol imports are not currently available in the United States, but will most certainly begin to show up soon. A blind tasting of 1,000 people organized by the French National Institute for Agronomic Research showed that alcohol could be reduced in wine by up to three percentage points without ordinary drinkers noticing a difference. Vintners in the United States may also follow step in offering lowered alcohol levels to between 11% and 13%. This would make a large difference in lowering the alcohol intake of moderately heavy consumers, and especially women.

Some of the information in this article was taken from sources that include the following:
“Alcohol Levels to Reduce or Not? Dr. Jamie Goode, The World of Fine Wine, Issue 23 2009.
Wine & Spirits Special Issue “The Buzz Around Alcohol” Fall 2010

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