Andrew Jefford: ‘Cannabis is coming and wine producers know it’

Andrew Jefford: ‘Cannabis is coming and wine producers know it’

In his column for Decanter magazine’s November 2018 issue, Andrew Jefford looks at the growing crossover between cannabis and the drinks world.

If you are Canadian, Spanish, Dutch, Georgian or Uruguayan, you can consume recreational cannabis; so can people in nine US states and in Washington DC. Cannabis may remain illegal elsewhere, but personal recreational use is often decriminalised. We’ll see rapid legislative changes regarding cannabis over the next 50 years.

Constellation brands, the owner of Robert Mondavi, Nobilo, Kim Crawford and other wine brands, has just upped its investment in Canadian cannabis producer Canopy Growth, giving itself the option on a controlling stake in three years.

Most recreational cannabis users still smoke the stuff, but it can also be vaped and ingested. Cannabis drinks of various sorts may become the leading medium for recreational consumption; once legalised, the smoking of cannabis will lose its allure. No sane consumer wants tarry lungs.

Cannabis and I have yet to become acquainted, since I never wanted to inhale smoke, nor ingest a drug produced in an uncontrolled and unsupervised manner, and delivered in a dose of unspecified and variable strength.

Once all that changes, once I can safely consume a modest ‘glass of cannabis’ as an alternative to a glass of wine, then I will happily give it a try. As will millions of others – which is why drinks companies cannot afford to ignore this trend.

Wine drinkers might scoff at the idea that cannabis could ever replace their beloved glasses of Puligny or Pauillac – and as a sensual experience, it won’t. Nor is it exactly analogous to tea; instead it occupies an intriguing half-way house between both. Wine is made from fruit; tea from leaf.

Cannabis, by contrast, is made from the unfertilised female flower ‘buds’ of this complicated plant. These are generally harvested as the pistils turn red, the trichomes (hair-like outgrowths) turn milky-white, and the resin on the buds and trichomes glitters sticky and transparent.

Cannabis possesses one clear advantage over wine, in that its medical use in treating epilepsy and providing relief from chronic pain (such as that caused by arthritis) is proven, whereas the only proven medical benefit of alcohol is as an antiseptic and disinfectant. The positive effects of moderate cannabis use (lowering of stress levels, increased appreciation of the arts and of food and drink, increased sensuality and joviality) would be recognised by any wine drinker.

Exactly like alcohol, excessive cannabis use brings a panoply of negative health consequences, and is addictive. It’s hard, though, to see any reason save unfamiliarity for keeping cannabis illegal in any legislature where alcohol consumption is legal.

The real test of cannabis as a rival to wine, of course, will be the beauty and complexity of the drinks that can be made from it. Cannabis certainly has its own distinctive character and sensual profile, and the lyricism and metaphorical energy already brought to bear on different smoked strains suggest it might offer a complexity analogous to wine.

‘A mix of Cali orange and skunk, it’s positively flush with limonene, the terpene that gives oranges their delightful citrus smell. More like the flesh of a clementine than the rind, there’s still faint white pepper and skunkiness in the strain…’ That’s a cannabis tasting note (for Colorado-grown Tangie), which is taken from the website; the resemblance to wine-tasting notes is obvious.

Any ‘pure cannabis’ drink, though, would be a flavoured infusion of a resinous flower head, which – most importantly – is made without fermentation (there’s little sugar there).

No unfermented beverage could ever rival a fermented one for complexity of aroma and flavour. Beer (for lovers of grain and hop resins) and wine (for lovers of fruit) will therefore keep their drinking superiority.

Crossover drinks will also flourish, though, bringing fermented alcohol and cannabis together, and it’s possible that these might offer a charm and subtlety of their own.

This article was first published in Decanter magazine’s November 2018 issue.

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