Jefford on Monday: Alcohol labelling – taste first, then look
Andrew Jefford suggests we’re getting it wrong about alcohol – with disastrous consequences.
Former Polish president Lech Wałęsa is the source of one of my favourite political quotations. No one seems quite sure when he first said it, but it later became one of his stock answers to difficult political questions: “I am for, and even against” (“Jestem za, a nawet przeciw”). When I look at the alcohol level displayed on wine labels, I know exactly what he means.
Consumers should be informed about what’s in the bottle of wine they are about to drink. The alcohol level is obviously a useful piece of information, and vital for assessing personal intake accurately. It’s time that the USA, Australia and New Zealand conformed to the +/- 0.5% maximum alcohol variance permitted in the EU and China; the existing +/- 1.5% in those countries is unnecessarily vague. From a health point of view, alcohol levels belong on labels: no question.
From the aesthetic perspective, though, I deeply regret the free availability of this information, the prominence with which it appears on front labels, and its growing ubiquity alongside all tasting notes (those appearing in Decanter magazine included). Why? Because it unduly and often inaccurately influences tasting judgments. On occasion, indeed, it can actually damage or destroy tasting ability by kicking away sensual objectivity.
Worse still, the idea that a wine with an alcohol level of 14.5% or 15% might be intrinsically ‘unbalanced’ is now unthinkingly accepted by many wine tasters. It has, too, become a corrosive element of wine fashion, and is negatively affecting the ways in which wines are produced. Producer neuroses about alcohol levels lead to a fetish for early harvesting. In many cases, this means that wines are robbed of the aromatic resonance and articulacy, the flesh and the texture which they would otherwise possess had they been harvested at perfect maturity. That in turn steals the potential pleasure drinkers might otherwise have taken in a well-vinified wine.
How is all this possible? Simply thus: knowing the alcohol level of a wine leads to cognitive bias.
A cognitive bias is a deviation from rationality in judgement. These biases are manifold, as a quick look at the ‘cognitive bias codex’ on Wikipedia will reveal; it’s actually hard to exclude all cognitive biases from any judgement, but that’s not a reason to abandon the effort. I would suggest that the moment you know that a particular wine contains, say, 14.5% or 15% alcohol, that fact may exert a disproportionate effect on the way in which you taste that wine. The figure itself prompts you to find that wine ‘over-alcoholic’. Given the option, I always ask not to be given this information as I taste. Where it is supplied (as it is in the Decanter World Wine Awards competition, for example), I do my best to ignore it until I have reached a verdict on the wine.
Tasters, remember, are surrogate drinkers; they are looking to find and to assess drinking pleasure. All that matters is what is tasted, not what is known. If knowing a particular fact will vitiate your tasting pleasure (and we are now getting to the stage where sight of “15%” on a label will do just that for many), then it is better not to know. If you don’t know, you will taste the wine more justly.
I realise that this will seem incendiary to some readers, so let me quickly list some of the things I am not suggesting.
- I am not suggesting that all information about wines has a negative effect on tasting ability. On the contrary, knowledge about origin is vital, since there is no single aesthetic ideal for wine. Beauty in wine is predicated on origin. (It is not predicated on alcohol.)
- I am not suggesting that balance in wine is an irrelevant or over-rated virtue. It is both desirable in its own right, and the basis of drinkability, which I consider a defining quality of both good wine and fine wine. I am simply suggesting that alcohol in itself is a much less prominent element in balance than it is at present modishly made out to be.
- I am not suggesting that ‘unbalanced’ wines do not exist. They do indeed exist, for a multitude of reasons. Early picked, under-ripened wines can also be unbalanced; so, too, can over-oaked or over-ripened wines. But you cannot tell that a wine is over-ripened by looking at its alcohol level, since ripening is intimately related to site, variety and season. Craft, too – and, it would seem, climate change. These are ceaselessly variable factors. You can only tell if a wine is over-ripened by tasting it and drinking it, and that is best done by first removing the potential for cognitive bias.
It is, in conclusion, wholly erroneous to assume or assert that wines cannot be balanced at 15%, 15.5% or 16% — or whatever strength at which the yeasts finally throw in the towel. Balance is a function of the sum of constituents of a wine and the manner in which they are disposed within that wine. This is a question of enormous complexity, as we all know: think, if you will, of the dozens of different nuances in different wines’ acid spectra, for example, or in wines’ textural presences. To focus on alcohol level is absurdly reductive. Wines deserve better of their drinkers.
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