With gruesome headlines of antisocial behaviour and the 2008 budget looming with its inherent guesswork and predictions, I thought this week I would turn to one of the Treasury’s favourite social infringements – the nation’s consumption of alcohol.

As cabinet discussions go, this must be one of the most hypocritical set of meetings undertaken each year. How do we condemn the less than virtuous behaviour of our citizens whilst upholding our inexorable desire to extract as much taxation as possible from such continued misconduct?

Alcohol comes in many forms but I will limit my thoughts in a column prefixed ‘On the Grapevine’ to the world of still wines – especially given the creeping rise in the alcoholic content of the bottles we are seeing on the shelf.

Alcohol, the common name for ethanol, is derived from the Arabic world Al–Kuhl meaning the concentration or quintessence of any raw material.

Alcohol is by nature the most potent component of still wine which separates it from mere grape juice. Alcohol per se does not have a taste but clearly has an impact on how wine eventually tastes, as well as its effect upon us and our nervous system.

We are aware that when wines are described as “full-bodied” they are normally quite high in alcohol, whereas those characterized as “light” are generally low in alcohol.

The degree of alcohol in a wine is equivalent to its percentage of overall volume and is expressed on all wines imported into this country by the amount in numbers followed by a percentage symbol being either % or º.

Unfortified wines have an alcoholic strength between 9% and 15% with the bulk of wines commonly available in the UK between 11.5 and 13.5% alcohol.

However, there are increasing signs that we are selecting higher alcohol wines decade by decade.

Alcohol begins its life as grape-sugar within the flesh of the fruit, break the fruit and mix it with yeasts and fermentation commences with the eventual outcome being wine. This grape sugar is the direct result of sunlight produced by photosynthesis within the fruit, so it is no surprise that the highest levels of alcohol achieved occur in the hottest climates i.e. those nearest to the equator.

With our growing flirtation with wines of the new world, California, South Africa, Chile, New Zealand, Argentina or Australia for example, we are unwittingly exposing ourselves to gently increasing alcoholic content. Simple country wines from France or Spain would often never reach the giddy heights we know today and in the cooler climates of Germany and Austria we regularly find wines with even lower alcoholic volumes such as 9 or 10 %.

Which brings me to a salutary tale. A colleague of mine who runs a tidy little gastro-pub on the edge of the Hickling Broad succumbed to the vulnerability of many a hostelry owner, that of overindulgence of the fruits of the vine.

His case came up last August.

I am not here to judge his crime, the laws of England did, and he was informed he would not be driving for the next twelve months. With enlightened government support a scheme is in place to educate those who fall foul of the law, and with seminars lasting over a period of 16 hours a candidate who reviews the error of his ways may well be re-acquainted with his license after only nine months. This course is available to all online under the Drink Wise Scheme.

I cite this case as the culprit was seemingly unaware of his limitations and stuck religiously to the notion that 3 units of alcohol were an acceptable amount. One outcome of the Drink Wise Scheme was the information available to him, and us, to control and monitor the consumption of ethanol via  a simple yet illuminating formula;

Volume of glass in mls x % alcohol content ÷ 1000 = one unit.

First select or understand the wine glass size you are offered. There are three regularly used wine glasses in the on-trade, 125ml, 175ml, and 250ml, the 175ml becoming the national standard (often misleadingly referred to as a ‘small glass’ in some pubs) and the 250ml seen increasingly in wine bars and restaurants.

The alcohol percentage is always sited on the label of a wine bottle, do ask to see this or ensure the bar staff offer a correct answer.

So we now have the two important parts of the formula, let’s start at the lower end, take a 125ml glass and assume the wine is 11.5%. Therefore the algebra is as follows 125 X 11.5% ÷ 1000. The answer is 1.43.  This figure being units of alcohol you have ordered.

Now take the other extreme which is a large glass with a high alcohol content, Australian Shiraz for example. So The glass size is 250ml and the alcohol is 14.5%. The formula runs 250 X 14.5 ÷ 1000. The answer now is a staggering 3.62 – more than your recommended daily quota in one glass.

It is pertinent to note that a wine which is carefully made and in perfect balance would leave the assessment of its alcoholic content unfathomable. So the further enjoyment of a wine need not depend of its alcoholic content, only those seeking a fast alcohol delivery would take the volume route. The price too is exempt from the same influences, as the amount of duty charged remains the same on the cheapest bottle of Blossom Hill as it does on a £1000.00 bottle of Petrus i.e. £1.34 per 75cl bottle.

Whether it’s to avoid the new-found curse of ‘middle-class binge drinking’, to preserve good health, or to make sure you don’t take the wheel in an unfit state, it’s as well to understand how much alcohol you’re drinking, especially in a world where wines of 14 percent and higher are becoming more commonplace.

That said, it’s still possible to drink a myriad of glorious wines whilst maintaining a healthy responsible lifestyle. Simply remember the French maxim, “if you want pleasure drink wine, if you’re thirsty drink water”.