Jefford on Monday: Rummaging in the Entrails

I drink more red wine than white. Why? Because it has guts: a textural and extractive dimension, leached from the skins and pips during and after fermentation.

Crushing grapes for wine

I drink more red wine than white. Why? Because it’s more satisfying. Why so? Because it has guts: a textural and extractive dimension, leached from the skins and pips during and after fermentation.

White wine is the transformation of grape juice. Red wine is the whole grape transformed. Red wine, in other words, gives you more.

But how much more, and what sort of more? Those are interesting questions. One reason for learning about wines is to be able to predict their constitution. Madiran, wine students quickly realise, is more generous in terms of texture and extract than is Hautes Côtes de Beaune.

Ok, that’s an easy one, but what about Bordeaux? Some are sturdy; others slender – and at all price points and in all appellations. Ditto Côtes du Rhône. Sometimes, too, received opinion on this matter is wrong. ‘Big’ Australian reds are often assumed to be tannic. They aren’t. Australian drinkers don’t like tannin. They prefer acidity.

Professor Roger Corder shares my interest. You may know his work through his book The Wine Diet, in which he investigates the health benefits associated with textured and structured reds (he holds the chair of Experimental Therapeutics at the William Harvey Research Institute in London).

He has now become a partner and director in a UK-based internet wine retailer called Vinopic. At present, Vinopic is selling wines already imported by others to the UK. What, then, are its points of difference? One of them is that Roger Corder analyses every wine, giving them all something he calls an Intrinsic Quotient (or IQ for short). That, together with Master of Wine Rosemary George’s input in selecting, describing and scoring the wines, is the justification for its claim that it is “advancing wine choice” and helping consumers “buy better wine online”.

I pressed Professor Corder about his IQ concept, since it’s only sketchily explained on the website. “It’s not a health index,” he emphasised. “Basically it reflects the kind of wine I like drinking.” He refused to give me the full details of his ‘algorithm’ for the IQ, but its positive inputs are procyanidin levels (these are the mid-range polyphenols he fingered as being of maximum benefit to health in his book) plus total polyphenols and anthocyanin levels, while negative inputs are higher alcohol levels (which he describes as “a curse on drinking pleasure”) as well as higher sulphite levels and residual sugar levels.

The differences in IQ scores are striking. Top-scoring wine is a 2005 Sagrantino di Montefalco from Antonelli San Marco at 169; a Framingham Pinot Noir from New Zealand limps home in last place with an IQ of just 27. It’s frustrating that the Vinopic site doesn’t actually provide the total phenolics and procyanidin figures, which would be what interest me the most, since I disagree with Professor Corder’s assertion that higher alcohol levels are ‘a curse on drinking pleasure’. He did tell me, though, that the Framingham Pinot measures 1162 mg/L of total phenolics and 327 mg/L of procyanidins – by comparison with the number four wine (IQ 100: the 2007 Haute Tradition Madiran from Berthoumieu) which had 2642 mg/L phenolics and 1240 mg/L procyanidins.

He also claims on the site to have analysed 110 supermarket red wines and found that their average procyanidin level was a decidedly modest 380 mg/L, though again no detail is provided and he wasn’t prepared to let me have it “because it has taken several years to accumulate, and because it may not reflect current vintages”.

Despite this haziness, it seems to me that what Corder is doing is significant. He’s picking over the entrails; he’s anatomising gutsiness. I know from my discussions with him that much more could be learned from these analyses – including to what extent oak has been used to bolster the structure of a wine (“oak phenolics will show up as high total phenols but not influence the procyanidin measurement”).

I can understand why Vinopic fights shy of associating the IQ with active health benefits, but Corder’s book and many years of interrogating my own body satisfy me, at any rate, that wines rich in the guts of phenolics, anthocyanins and, especially, the pip-derived procyanidins are, in moderate quantities, decidedly tonic.

Why shouldn’t we go further? Why shouldn’t these figures play a role in analytical discussions of wine quality? Why, one day in the future, shouldn’t the procyanidin level be mandatory on labels, together with precise sulphur levels and full disclosure of additives? Come on, Brussels, get a move on …

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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