It’s happened to the best of us and, unfortunately, we all know the feeling: Waking up the next morning, feeling like death warmed up and swearing you’ll never drink again. But what exactly is a hangover and what in wine causes hangovers?
For those who don’t know, common features of hangovers include headaches, nausea, fatigue, dehydration and weakness, even mild depression. I must admit I didn’t realize hangovers are that complex until I started to research them. It gets a little technical, I know, but hang in there – it’s pretty interesting!
The most common cause of a wine hangover is dehydration. Alcohol causes the body to lose water through a complex pathway, resulting in the brain temporarily shrinking. This puts the membranes under strain, causing a headache. This goes hand in hand with a very dry mouth. Furthermore, alcohol causes glycogen (your medium-term energy store) to be converted into glucose and excreted along with salts and minerals, causing you to feel tired the next day. Are you ready to open the next bottle of Chenin yet?
Another major cause of hangovers is biogenic amines, specifically histamine, a chemical we usually associate with allergic reactions. Almost all alcoholic beverages contain some histamine, especially red wine, as it is made from whole grapes. Some people are more sensitive to histamine than others, which can lead to allergic reactions. Symptoms may vary from rosy cheeks to bad headaches. This has nothing to do with the vast amount of wine they knocked back the previous night, of course… There are quite a few factors that can influence the histamine content of wine, and most of them are related to the microbial health of the wine. So, it is very possible that the red wine from one producer will be fine while the same variety from another producer will give you a splitting headache.
And then there is acetaldehyde, which is a by-product of the liver breaking down alcohol. The body can break down small quantities of acetaldehyde, but it cannot metabolize large quantities acetaldehyde, which adds to your hangover. Interesting to note here is that acetaldehyde is closely related to formaldehyde, the preservative that scientists use to store dodgy organs in jars. That really makes you reach out to your wine rack, doesn’t it?
Next is a group of molecules called congeners, which is commonly found in dark-colored drinks like red wine, brandy and whiskey. Very little is known about this chemical group, but apparently it is not very good for us, hence the hangovers.
Interestingly, in my research for this article, I found no mention of sulfur – one of the most popular culprits on which hangovers are pinned. Now you know what happens on the odd occasion when you lose the plot. Having said that, I still believe that moderate wine consumption will definitely add quality to your life and health. Cheers!
There has been an interesting debate in the wine industry the last few months, with the influential Platter’s South African Wine Guide in the middle of it. The point of discussion is blind tasting, or to be more accurate: The fact that wines for Platter are not tasted and judged blind, meaning the taster knows what he/she is tasting. One side argues that the judges are biased when assessing the wines because they are influenced by the history, image and marketing activities (or the lack thereof) of a wine estate. The other side argues that wine should be tasted and appreciated in context, taking track record and bottle and vintage variations into account.
People become very animated about the blind tasting of wine, but let’s get a different angle on the topic: It is amazing how much food shopping has changed over the last decade or so. Gone are the days when one had a limited choice of meat and vegetables. Nowadays it is organically grown vegetables and free range meat, where a lot of these options really have merit. But is dolphin-friendly tuna necessarily better than unethically fished tuna and does sustainably grown coffee really taste better than coffee beans from exploited plantations in Africa? Even though the products might taste the same, the holistic product has a feel-good story that adds to the experience.
The problem with blind tasting is that people are not single-sensory beings; blind tasting does not allow for context. I am sure there is a lot to be said for analysing wine unbiased in a clinical laboratory environment to evaluate its intrinsic qualities, but there must be more to wine than evaluating 25 ml of liquid in a glass. Surely 5 generations of winemaking must account for something when walking into the tasting room at Overgaauw, or 325 years of uninterrupted winemaking when opening a bottle of Groot Constantia Shiraz?
I came across an old article in the Washington Post of April 2007 that gives an interesting perspective on this issue:
The article in the Washington Post was about a middle-aged man who played six Bach pieces on a violin for an hour in the Washington DC Metro Station on a cold winter’s morning. During this time, approximately two thousand people went through the station, most on their way to work. A handful of people stopped briefly to listen for a short while and about 20 people gave money as they passed the violinist, adding up to a total of $32. It turned out the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most intricate pieces ever written on a violin worth $3.5 million. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold out a theatre in Boston where the seats averaged $100. Bell’s playing in the metro station was organised by journalist Gene Weingarten from the Washington Post as a social experiment about taste and priorities, to see whether people can recognize beauty out of context.
A statement in this Washington Post article about the Joshua Bell experiment sums up the essence of the wine tasting debate: “What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, coloured by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?”
Few things in life are as annoying as a smart ass. Unfortunately the wine scene is full of them. I’m sure the majority of people have come across the wine snob – you know, the guy that will casually compare the Chardonnay in his glass to the Chassagne Montrachet that he had the night before. If this does not impress or baffle his dining partners, he’ll chuck in a bit of jargon. Just as you are taking a sip of your red wine, he announces that he detects Brett on the wine.
You don’t know whether you should spit out or swallow the generous gulp you just took. I mean, it sounds like you might contract a life-threatening disease. Now this is not a new topic, but I still come across many people that don’t really know what on earth Brett is all about.
Brett is short for Brettanomyces – a spoilage yeast which was first discovered over a century ago when it caused problems in the British brewing industry. It should come as no surprise that the name was derived from a Greek word meaning “British fungus”. Today Brettanomyces is a worldwide problem; there is not a single wine-growing region on the planet that is free of this potential complication.
How does Brettanomyces get into a cellar? It is a big grey area as to exactly where Brett comes from. French researchers suggest that Brett can be found in the vineyard and carried into the cellar via the grapes. However, the latest research shows that the Brett in the vineyards is not the same strain as the Brett that is spoiling wine. Back to square one. Okay, so we don’t know what the source is, but we do know that there are countless ways of contaminating new, clean wineries: infected second-hand barrels, bulk wine, contaminated equipment, even little vinegar flies and human beings can bring in this unwanted guest into a clean environment. Problem is, once these little buggers get into the winery, it is really difficult to get rid of them.
How does one manage Brett in a winery? It all boils down to basic cellar hygiene. Taking into account the numerous sources of contamination, this is easier said than done. Brett can be detected via sensory analysis (smelling something funny in the wine) or more than likely with laboratory analysis. Once you detect the first signs of Brett in the winery you have to wash and sterilise everything that could be contaminated, or even better, chuck it out of the winery. This sounds pretty simple, but is takes major cleaning up to get rid of Brett contamination.
So what exactly does this Brettanomyces do to wine? When it grows in wine, it forms flavour components described as mousy, Band Aid, horse sweat and even spicy. Now, the big question is: Exactly how bad are these flavours? This is dangerous territory: Some winemakers and wine writers say that it is microbiological spoilage. Hence, they go for zero tolerance because Brett is bad and kills the character of the wine. Others argue that a low level of infection can actually enhance the quality and complexity of some wines. After all, quite a few of the top French wines show a fair amount of Brett.
I’m not going to stick my neck out and take a stand on this topic, but rather opt for a politically safe conclusion like: This is the beauty of wine; it is all about personal preference!
I was absolutely horrified when I saw the new Backsberg “Tread Lightly” in a supermarket recently. I mean we’re still trying to get our heads around cork versus screw cap, now the wine industry is throwing another curve ball at us: Polyethylene terephthalate aka PET bottles. Or just call it plastic if you prefer. Why on earth would they use plastic bottles and what are the consequences for wine quality?
This is a tricky one, because it seems like the main drive behind the new packaging is that plastic bottles are more environmentally friendly than their glass counterparts. The first advantage of PET bottles is that a plastic bottle weighs only 50g compared to an average glass bottle which weighs about 400g.
Secondly, transport seems to be more effective. As the bottles are smaller, you can stack an extra 36% in a container when you export. This means more effective transport, less fuel and less carbon emission.
Thirdly, PET bottles are more robust, as plastic is less likely to break when man-handled. This makes it ideal for an outdoor lifestyle that involves picnics, rafting, camping and hiking.
Lastly, it is actually more environmentally friendly to manufacture and recycle plastic bottles. I know this is a difficult one to get your head around. I always thought that plastic was the original Prime Evil, polluting oceans and hindering recycling. It seems like glass is even worse, whether you’re talking manufacturing or recycling. “Reports in the public domain record reductions in CO2 emissions from as low as 29% to as high as 52% when using PET as opposed to glass, and energy consumption in the manufacture and supply chain is reduced by 40 to 50%”.
So there you have it: plastic bottles are more eco-friendly and they can be recycled to produce things like polar fleece. Which means you can drink a bottle of wine and then recycle it to knit a jersey.
Next question: What are the implications from a wine quality point of view?
The biggest criticism against PET is oxygen permeability. Plastic is not particularly good at keeping oxygen out, which means the wine will oxidise a lot quicker in PET bottles, limiting the lifespan of wines in plastic. It seems like Mondi, the leading supplier of PET bottles in South Africa, has taken extra care of this, trying to build in a special barrier to protect the wine. Unfortunately these “barriers” lose their effectiveness at higher temperatures, which is one of the reasons why it is inadvisable to ship PET bottles over long distances. This pretty much defies the “extra 36% in a container when you export” advantage, doesn’t it? Back to oxidation: The local manufacturers guarantee a shelf life of two years, while French researchers claim this figure is closer to six months. Given the fact that more than 90% of wines are consumed within 48 hours of purchase, does it really matter?
Another tricky point is the health issue. Rumour has it that certain dodgy chemicals with funny names like phthalates (try and pronounce that!) can be leached from plastics by alcohol and are dangerous to one’s health. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors; they can mess up hormone signalling. Very little is known about this matter and I suppose more research needs to be done before I can make wild allegations like this.
I am sure a lot of people will be sceptical about this change in the wine industry. But so were we when screw caps were introduced just over a decade ago, and now that is widely accepted. The twist is that everyone is carbon crazy at the moment: carbon footprint, carbon credits, etc. PET bottles are supported by the Waste Resources and Action Programme (WRAP), a government-sponsored initiative in the UK. Even though we are not at that point in South Africa, the principle is still the same and companies, big or small, are concerned about their impact on the environment.
So, I am sorry for traditionalists like myself but, even though the top end will stick to glass, it seems for supermarket convenience and an easy drinking lifestyle with a feel-good green halo, we will probably see more wine in plastic bottles in the near future.