We taste what we want to taste

The alcohol in wine

By Ian Hickinbotham
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Noble Rot on Riesling grapes, Geelong, Victoria

Noble Rot on Riesling grapes, Geelong, Victoria [©Ian Hickinbotham]

Australian Plonky by Ian Hickinbotham


The alcohol we drink in wine is most conveniently defined as 'ethanol'. So when the sugar of grape juice is fermented by yeasts, it is ethanol that is produced along with gas, the gas of Champagne or soft drinks.

There are many other alcohols, some not so pleasant. In fact the most common is methanol – and it is the most dangerous for human beings. There is also propanol which we may know better in the form of isopropyl alcohol, the important constituent of medical cleansing swabs applied to injection sites. More common is glycerol, which we appreciate as glycerine, the sweet taste component – implanted by the Noble Rot mould – in such glorious wines as De Bortoli's Noble One.

Methanol could be described as the alcohol of 'moonshine', the home-made drink of the hillbillies – consumption led to blindness, and often death. Arguably, the human tragedies it caused was the fillip to the repeal of prohibition in America. During those restrictive 13 years, much illegal alcohol was the backbone reason for the development of 'bootlegging' and organised crime in that country.

Given that background, it seems worrying that in much of the fermentations in Burgundy, the stalks are present with the freshly picked grapes because methanol is produced from them. This was the reason why older Australian oenologists were taught to de-stem their grapes before fermentation. In a practical sense, that is partly the reason for our universal acceptance of sophisticated German crushers only some 50 years ago. Prior to that time, our grape crushers could be likened to chaff cutters, given that they even shredded the stalks during the crushing action.

Now we have this current fashion of eagerly slavishly copying old Burgundian practices, championed by Australians who spend time 'vintaging' in that illustrious vinicultural region of France. Wine writers, usually English, encourage the trend by championing resulting wines – even though they have not subjected themselves to properly designed comparative tastings to properly evaluate the old technique. Seems like a classic case of the accepted shibboleth: 'We taste what we want to taste.'


Ian Hickinbotham, one of the most innovative and influential oenologists in Australia over his 50 year career, is the author of Australian Plonky (see related review below).


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