We search in vain for a message on the bottle

The uselessness of wine labels.

This week’s column seemed so simple: just me, a fastapproaching deadline and a list of complaints about wine labels. I’ve moaned for years about the refusal of the French to tell me anything I might want to know on their bottles.
 
It’s like someone who’s introducing himself shrugging contemptuously and walking off after being asked what he does for a living. No grape names, no regional information – none that a novice could understand, anyway. A vintage, an appellation d’origine contrôlée (don’t know what that is? Tough) and probably an owner’s name, but no indication of whether that owner has been dead for 200 years and his inheritors have been bought out by a conglomerate.
 
Often, there is just one label. The French may have a word for the back label – une contre étiquette – but, as we have established, naming things is neither here nor there. Even when there is a second label, it usually has a lot of guff about expressing the authenticity of terroir and respecting nature. “Each year, our recompense is the harvest,” claims the back of my 2002 Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus. Maybe. That bottle is worth £75. Winemakers are legally obliged to tell you when their wine contains sulphites. These hugely useful words are the only English on the label, apart from “Produce of France”. 
 
But let’s not limit ourselves to picking on the French. My 2004 Sassicaia tells me neither the owner of the vineyard nor that this wine was one of the first of the so-called Super Tuscans that made this part of Italy nearly as dribbled over by high-end wine lovers as Bordeaux. (Sassicaia contains two of the same grapes as Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. No, you won’t get that from the label.) The back of the bottle is disturbed only by a label that tells me it “contains sulphites”, in 20 languages. Of all the things I’d like to learn from the outside of a bottle of great wine, how to convey in Magyar that someone has added a preservative is pretty low down the list.
 
It is the New World that has changed this. The Penfolds Magill Estate gives so much information about the handpicked grapes, vineyard, fermentation process and need for decanting that I could probably make a bottle myself. Better yet, with a wine called 2000 Magill Estate Shiraz, it’s not much of a mystery which grapes have been used.
 
“What is wrong with the Europeans?” I wondered, as I examined a bottle of Bolney Estate rosé at its Sussex winery, searching in vain for enlightenment about what I’d be consuming if I chose to drink it. If I buy a top, the label tells me about the materials – and none of my outfits has yet entered my digestive system. A marketing failure of this kind won’t make Bolney’s wines taste as good as top Burgundy or Sassicaia – or Magill Estate, come to that. You’re supposed to copy the innovators, not the old farts. It’s called progress.
 
The reason why this column is not the simple matter it was supposed to be is that, while researching it, I discovered that some labels are not marketing failures at all, even if they are the luxury-goods equivalent of an information blackout. Back in the 1940s, Château Mouton Rothschild began asking artists to decorate its bottles and the practice continues: the list includes Jean Cocteau, Andy Warhol and Marc Chagall. You don’t want to cloud up a Chagall with words and you probably want to buy it, if you can afford it, whatever it’s on.
 
There have been wine labels for more than 3,000 years and most have not catered to the literalist whims of wine populists. Many have been worse than reticent: Bordeaux used to be known for selling a lot more wine than it produced and, as recent forgery scandals demonstrate, Appellation Outright Porky is still flying off the shelves. Nonetheless, I believe that experimental winebuying should be encouraged. And a little basic information, handily situated, would surely harm the punter a lot less than any number of sulphites.
 
Next week: Ruth Padel on nature
Ignorance isn't bliss; winemakers should take a less laid-back approach to keeping us informed. Photograph: Joss McKinley/Gallery Stock.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.