Sunday, 17 August 2008


When it comes to Australian wine writers, Max Allen is my favourite by a country mile. His articles are usually funny and down to earth, while still being informative. There's none of the pretentiousness which (unfortunately) seems to find itself into so much wine writing these days.

Last week in The Weekend Australian Magazine, Max Allen conducted some first hand research in order to answer the eternal question "Does cheap plonk really give you a worse hangover than expensive wine?". I thought it was a great article, so here it is:

Does cheap plonk really give you a worse hangover than expensive wine?
Overwhelming anecdotal evidence does tend to support this widely held view, doesn’t it? Anyone who has ever had more than one hangover can tell you the after-effects of overindulgence vary enormously. And they’ll swear blind that it’s the quality of what they drank the night before that determines how bad they feel the morning after.

Why do I feel so bad after a night on the grog?
Alcohol, as we all know but often choose to forget, is a poison, a diuretic and a drug. Drinking too much of it increases the acid in our system, making us feel sick; it dehydrates the body, inducing a raging thirst the following day; and the worst symptoms of a really bad hangover – including anxiety and depression – feel like drug withdrawal because it is drug withdrawal: you have introduced your body to intoxication and then taken the intoxicant away.

Surely the severity of a hangover is just a question of quantity, not quality. The more of the drug you consume, the worse you’re going to feel.
You’d think that, wouldn’t you? After all, the “active ingredient” in any wine, the alcohol – or, to be more accurate, ethanol C2H5OH – is chemically the same, whether it’s in a cask of cheap shiraz or a bottle of Grange. And about 85 per cent of the rest of the wine, however expensive, is water. So the difference between cask wine and Grange really hinges on less than one per cent of other stuff such as the flavour and colour extracted from the grapes.

Can such a small amount of “other stuff” really make that much of a difference?
There’s only one way to find out: by putting the theory through some rigorous testing. So I did. I raided the cellar and pulled the corks on some very posh bottles: vintage French champagne, a single-vineyard Adelaide Hills chardonnay, a 10-year-old Coonawarra cabernet and some rare Rutherglen muscat. Then, over dinner, and using the “standard drinks” declaration on the labels to measure my alcohol intake, I proceeded to drink immoderately – all in the name of research, you understand. Then, a few days later, I repeated the exercise, and drank exactly the same amount of alcohol but made sure it was a selection of the cheapest plonk I could find: a glass from a $5 bottle of fizz, some cask chardonnay and bargain-basement shiraz cabernet, and – I didn’t even know they still made it – a few hearty draughts from a two-litre flagon of McWilliams Royal Reserve Brown Muscat.

Come on, we’re dying to know – how did the hangovers compare?
For a start, the difference in cost was alarming. On the expensive night, I calculated that I drank $400 worth of wine. The very same volume of cheap plonk added up to a minuscule $12. Frightening, isn’t it? Sobering, even. I was also surprised to find the posh-drop morning-after really wasn’t too bad: only slightly sick, dull headache, a bit foggy, a bit grumpy, but back to normal by early afternoon. The $12 hangover was, without question, much worse. When I did manage finally to crawl out of bed, my head was pounding, my heart was racing, and I was breathing fire. By mid-morning, a big lump of Plasticine in my head started to dry out and harden. By mid-afternoon, I was shrouded in cold self-pity. No doubt about it. Cheap wine really is worse for you than expensive wine.

But why is there such a difference?
No one knows for sure, but the most convincing theory I’ve heard concerns that one per cent of “other stuff”. In red wines particularly, the colour and much of the taste comes in the form of grape or oak-derived polyphenols – the tannins, pigment, flavour compounds and so on. In young red wines, most of these compounds are “short-chain” polyphenols. As the wine matures in the barrel and then in the bottle, however, the compounds polymerise, forming longer chains, altering the mouth-feel of the wine, and even dropping out of solution. This is why older red wine tastes more mellow, and why you find sediment at the bottom of the bottle. The theory is that while the body readily absorbs short-chain polyphenols, making the hangover worse, longer-chain polyphenols are less readily absorbed. And this goes some way to explaining my wildly differing hangover experiences, as the cheap wines I drank were barely a year old, whereas the posh wines had spent many years maturing.

So what you’re saying is that it’s not just a question of price – it’s a question of age.
Looks like it. Expensive wine may well give you a less severe hangover not because it’s expensive but because it’s likely to be older than the cheap plonk. All of which supports that other well-known wine-lover’s aphorism: drink less, drink better.

You can also read the article here on The Weekend Australian Magazine's website.

If you're keen to find out more about Max Allen, check out his website. He also writes for Gourmet Traveller, The Wine Magazine and various other publications around the globe.


Helen said...

I read that article too and loved it, really informative.

Sarah said...

Good article, and sage advice with the "drink less, drink better" adage... oh and what's with comment moderation? Has someone been flaming you about your food posts? :P

food bling, Brisbane said...

Comment moderation is just there for people who post after too much cheap booze. actually i haven't had to "moderate" anything yet

Sarah said...

Ahh ok... if it was someone tipsy on the good stuff you might let their comment through!