It’s perhaps unusual for a wine blogger who spends most of their time extolling the virtues of particular wines to remind us to drink sensibly. At this time of year, though, it’s important to remind ourselves, that we might be overdoing it.
Excess calories from wine are probably the reason I can’t get into my party dresses this year, despite having swum 50 miles for charity in the last 13 weeks. Worried: You’ll find a calorie calculator here which will give you an idea of the impact of your tipple on your waistline and on your health.
For me at Purple Teeth, my goal is to help people drink better. That could mean drinking less. Certainly since I’ve been working in the wine business more and in Customer Experience Consultancy less, I’ve had to drink less. Counter-intuitive perhaps, but as I’ve learned more about wine, my tastes have become rather more expensive than my income allows. So I drink better, but less.
Wine is a luxury good that’s relatively recently been commoditised to be part of every day life. And while there’s no denying the pleasure of a lovely glass of wine with a good meal, too much of what we’re drinking is not the best quality – clue: if you’re still buying wine at £5-6ish a bottle, the value of the wine is most likely less than the value of the glass it comes in.
Regardless of the quality, too much of it in general, is not going to do our health any good in the long term.
Back in the 80s when I first remember alcohol units being discussed, a glass of wine was purportedly “one unit”. That was based on a 100ml glass of wine, at 10% alcohol. Wine has changed a lot since the days when Hock was our regular tipple. Women were meant to drink no more than 2-3 units per day, and men, no more than 3-4 units per day. So, a couple of glasses was probably fine.
Nowadays, many bars serve us “buckets” of substandard Sauvignon Blanc or SE Australian Chardonnay. At 250ml per glass, the wine is all but slopping over the edges. There’s no room for the delicate swirling and sniffing, and perhaps that’s a good thing given how terrible much of this wine can be. Clue: if it’s under £20 in a bar or restaurant, you’re probably looking at the same wine value as you found in your £6 supermarket wine.
Speaking with John Petersen, local winemaker at Dropmore Vineyard, he also bemoaned these large glasses. “If nothing else, serving it in small carafes would remind us that 250ml is a third of a bottle. I’d like to see those glasses banned.”
Worse, the alcohol content is often 13.5%, sometimes even higher, meaning one large glass takes you over the recommended daily units for a woman. And yet, the idea from the days of Hock, that we could drink 3 glasses of wine for 3 units somehow prevails. In fact, 3 large glasses (or 4 “standard” 175ml glasses) represents a full bottle. And with some Shiraz and Malbecs weighing in at over 15% alcohol, an “average” bottle of wine is anywhere between 8.2 (for a sweetish Prosecco with a calorie load of between 5-600) and 11.5 units (for a hefty red that also carries around 800 calories). Remember too, that each unit takes one hour to clear your system, and that hour starts AFTER you stop drinking. So, if you finish up a nice bottle of Shiraz at 11pm and head out to drive to work at 7.30am, you may well be over the legal alcohol limit.
While 125ml glasses are available, they’re certainly no longer the standard serving in much of the UK. At the lower end of the market, offers such as “buy 2 large glasses, get the rest of the bottle free” prevail, and pricing generally points the customer to buy the larger glass.
At this time of year, it can be particularly hard to maintain the NHS guidelines of 2 alcohol free days per week. During the party season in particular, cutting back on our favourite tipples can be a challenge.
So how do we stay sensible, yet still have fun?
Sensible drinking is no-one’s responsibility except our own, and when we’re out with friends, family or colleagues over the festive season, it’s important to understand how peer pressure can affect us. There are strategies we can use, at home and while we’re out, to drink better but drink less.
Portion control is key. When choosing wine by the glass, remember that 125ml glasses must be made available by law. You can ask for them. If you feel “silly” in front of your friends for ordering a smaller glass, think how much more smug you’ll feel without the hangover they have as they imbibe twice what you’re having. Still not convinced? Order Champagne, Cava or Prosecco. The standard glass size is generally around 100ml, meaning each glass is much closer to a unit, allowing you to keep a closer eye on your consumption. Don’t kid yourself though – a bottle is still way too much.
Take some water with it: Always ensure you have a glass of water or soda water on the side to help slow you down, and keep you hydrated. You could also alternate with soft drinks. They’re not calorie free but they will help you pace yourself. And if the wine’s in the bar is not that good, make it into a spritzer.
Keep Cool: Think about where the alcohol comes from – the sun, producing sugar in grapes, which is then fermented into alcohol. So cooler climate wines are often a bit less alcoholic than their counterparts from warmer climes. It’s not an exact science, but often “New World” wines tend to be “bigger” than their old world counterparts, so often, a German Riesling will be lower alcohol than a New Zealand one, while a French Malbec will almost certainly be lower in alcohol than it’s Mendoza counterpart.
Shop Local: Consider our very own ENGLISH Wine industry. We make a wide variety of wonderfully refreshing and aromatic wines right here, which are very often much lower in alcohol than counterparts from further afield. Many English sparkling wines are lower in alcohol than their European counterparts, and the whites start at about 10% abv. One of my particular favourites of 2015 was the Bolney Estate Pinot Gris. At just 11%, it’s quite a bit lighter than it’s Alsatian counterpart at 13%, but no less intriguing. Switch from Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to a local Bacchus wine, or a local white blend and you’ll save anything from 0.5% to 2% alcohol, while still having a terrific tipple. Not to mention that you’ll have saved around 11,000 miles of transporting the bottle.
Think sweeter: Slightly sweeter styles of wine, e.g. off dry Rieslings or Portuguese Vinho Verde tend to be a good bit lower in alcohol, with some even below 10%. I’m not a fan of Zinfandel blush wines myself, but they can be as low as 8.5% alcohol, a far cry from their red brothers and sisters, which weigh in at 15% or more.
Unleash your inner wine snob. Slow down. Order a smaller glass so that there is room to swirl the wine. Smell it. Look for interesting aromas. As you taste it, try to find more than one flavour. If you can’t, don’t worry – it’s not you! Chances are, you’re drinking a really rather ordinary wine. Next time, trade up. Drink less, but choose a higher quality wine.
Some wines have just so much going on that I can spend 30 minutes without even tasting them, just savouring the aromas. And when I do finally taste it, it’s a sip, not a slurp. And it’s usually a little taste of heaven.
Think about it this way, you might wolf down a Mars Bar and not give it a second thought. But you’ll have swallowed ~260 calories without even noticing. If instead, you buy some Belgian truffles at considerably more cost than the Mars Bar, you may well eat the same amount of calories. But you’ll eat them more mindfully, you’ll savour the flavour, you’ll enjoy the experience over a significantly longer time. Chances are, you’ll have eaten your standard chocolate bar while doing something else, while you’ll give your posh truffles a lot more attention. At the end, you’ll know that those 260 calories were worth it.
Treat your wine this way. Slow it down. Choose better. Sip and savour. Discuss it with whoever you’re drinking it with. Watch how it compliments your meal.
Take the time to enjoy each alcohol unit mindfully, instead of just drinking a bucket of substandard Sauvignon. You’ll reduce your units, but you’ll definitely increase your pleasure.
Find out the wines I’m enjoying and recommending on my website www.purpleteeth.co.uk. Or consider hosting a Purple Teeth wine tasting party where I’ll show you and your friends what to look for, how to taste, how to know what to order, and how to find wine that delights every time.
Heather Harrison is a customer experience and wine consultant.