Of genetics, fast cars and good wine

by Forager on August 14, 2010

Fancy a tipple?

We’ve all heard that drinking in moderation is fine – even good for our health in low enough doses, but what does “moderation” mean for each of us? In Australia, guidelines suggest women drink no more than 2 standard drinks a day, men no more than 4 standard drinks – it doesn’t mean this amount of drinking is encouraged or endorsed – but that levels beyond this constitute “risk”.  A standard drink in Australia represents 10g of alcohol; 12.5mL of pure alcohol or in layman’s terms a can of mid-strength beer or 100mL of wine. Interestingly, a standard drink is different in different countries – it drops to 8g of alcohol in Britain, rises to 15g in the US and rockets to a phenomenal 20g in Japan – 2 drinks for every 1 standard drink in Australia.  Which is a really interesting fact, given most East Asians I know can’t hold their alcohol – not without turning a disturbingly unhealthy, unsightly shade of beetroot purple.

Take for example the Hens night I attended recently: part of the the festivities was a cocktail making class with some 20 other girls, all of Chinese origin and it was particularly interesting to monitor the great differences in alcohol tolerance. On one hand we had some were hardy drinkers partying late into the night and on the other one of the girls actually started stumbling and eventually passed out in the bar after a mere sip of her cocktail.

The reason for such disparity in our ability to consume alcohol? It all boils down to genetics.  Skip the next paragraph if you’d like to remain blissfully unaware of what your genes are getting up to.

There’s a theory we evolved the alcohol dehydrogenase gene (ADH) to metabolise the alcohol naturally occurring in our food – like rotten or fermented fruit. The gene produces the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme in the stomach and liver which in turn breaks down alcohol or ethanol into acetaldehyde. In many of us, the aldehyde dehydrogenase gene (ALDH) then produces an enzyme that breaks down the acetaldehyde into acetic acid (vinegar). In many Asians though and some other , there is a single mutation in ALDH2. This renders the ALDH enzyme inactive, and instead of being converted to vinegar, acetaldehyde builds up causing the characteristic red flush you see when many Asians drink alcohol. Varying activity levels of ADH and ALDH2, along with a number of factors like age, gender, weight etc account for the disparity between each individual’s ability to consume alcohol.

Thankfully, I’m blessed with good genetics (at least the stuff beneath the surface that is) and have a healthy amount of ADH and ALDH2 coursing through me. Which is handy, because I enjoy a good glass of wine and a mean Bloody Mary. And these genetics come in extra handy when visiting wineries in the Hunter Valley. We planned a trip that happened to be close to the Co-pilot’s birthday, so I decided to hire a performance vehicle for the Co-pilot’s birthday as he is a fan of fast cars. I had considered a Lotus to begin with, but after seeking advice from car-enthusiast friends, eventually splurged on a Porsche 911.

The Co-pilot was delighted with his gift and promptly started plotting driving routes to properly test the performance of the Porsche. He settled on a drive to the Hunter Valley via the winding back country roads via Putty, where the Co-pilot’s family and friends owned a hobby farm once upon a time.

Porsches happen to be an expensive hiring option so our original plan of spending the weekend there turned into a day trip. To make the most of our day I asked for expert opinions on a few select group of wineries to visit. The answer was clear and unanimous: Piggs Peake.

So one picturesque, sunny day, the Co-pilot and I picked up our Porsche and set off for the Hunter, alternating between pretending we’re a wealthy, ostentatious couple and Top Gear test drivers.

Porsche 911

Picking up our Porsche 911

As we struggled and strained through the early peak hour Sydney traffic making a beeline to those idyllic winding country roads I have to say, I found the Porsche, well, just a little underwhelming. For the exorbitant cost of the darn vehicle (I highly recommend reading the fine print as additional kilometres really add up and cost an arm, leg and torso), I half-expected the interior to be plastered in gleaming gold and sparkling fine jewels. But no. It looked like a car. With the windows and convertible soft top up in Sydney traffic, it didn’t sound particularly impressive either. I remarked to the Co-pilot that it wasn’t much more impressive than my humble little Honda. This remark of course is a serious faux pas for car enthusiasts. Don’t compare an old Honda to a Porsche. Lesson learned.

Thankfully, once we left the city limits and reached the rolling green pastures flanking Putty Road, we put the soft top down, opened up the engine and let the car devour the road. All within the legal speed limits, of course. I take my words back. The Porsche was better than my little old Honda.

Hands on the prize

Hands on the prize, gripping that wheel possessively

The drive on Putty Road was a little more harrowing and a little less relaxing than we’d hoped. The calm, sunny day suddenly turned, gusty winds whipped up and dried branches and debris peppered the road. We arrived at the Piggs Peake cellar door in the Hunter having successfully managing to dodge all those airborne missiles but resolved to drive via the boring but safe freeway route on the way home as we had no intention of voiding our insurance policy and paying the $1000+ excess fees.

The drive to the Hunter Valley is a short and pleasant trip in a Porsche

The drive to the Hunter Valley is a short and pleasant trip in a Porsche

I’ve had the pleasure of trying Piggs Peake’s wines at a few functions sponsored by Australian Pork as the name of the winery gels remarkably well with industry body’s name. The boutique winery is run by self-proclaimed “Boss Hog” Steve Langham, who started the winery in 2003. Leading sommelier Michael Partridge joined in 2008 after having spent 4 years at Watermark, Balmoral Beach.  As Steve describes the partnership – Michael brings an element of almost scientific understanding of the wine chemistry to the team whilst he provides the backstage wine making know-how and together their passion for wines see them questioning and trialing unconventional wine making techniques.  As a result they have  a small but intriguing range of delicious and rather unique wines and are famed for the bold Shiraz and Zinfandel wines they produce.

The pig-inspired references extends to all of the winery’s wines too. We enjoyed a very thorough and generous wine tasting courtesy of  Michael who walked us through the making and tasting notes of the full gamut of wines they offer with clever and cheeky names like:

  • Sow’s ear Semillon
  • Sowignon Blanc
  • House of straw Shiraz
  • House of sticks Shiraz
  • House of bricks Shiraz
  • Big Pig Cabernet
  • Pigbrusco
  • I Swine
  • Suckling pig Zinfandel.. and more

We also tasted a few wines from Michael’s own wine label, Peartree. His surname is Partridge – geddit?

These winemakers obviously have a great tongue-in-cheek humour that extends to their approach to the winery – they clearly really enjoy their jobs and intend to have a bit of fun doing it!

Piggs Peake wine tasting

A very thorough wine tasting at Piggs Peake

Once we’d finished our tasting, I was well and truly giving my ADH and ALDH2 enzymes a workout. Given the Co-pilot was the designated driver I felt it was my duty to perform a very thorough tasting of all the wines on offer so we could purchase the optimum lot. In hindsight, I sheepishly realised at this point that having the lovely Porsche might have been more of a punishment and less of a prize for him as he couldn’t enjoy the day as thoroughly.

Steve appeared then and asked if we’d like a tour of the backstage operations at the winery. We grinned and nodded our heads emphatically in response.

We see workers beavering away at great big vats coloured a surreal green hue from the tinted green skylights and head in for a closer look. Peering inside the vats we see wine fermentation at different stages – the beginning of the fermentation process when the sugars in the grape juice interact with yeast to produce ethanol or alcohol; the vat drained of usable good wine which is transferred to barrels for further aging; and the residual dregs at the bottom waiting to be cleaned out in preparation for the next round of wine fermentation.

The process of wine fermentation

The process of wine fermentation: primary fermentation in different stages

Outside we see the equipment used in wine making and Steve shows us the grape press being prepared for action.

The grape press

Steve shows us the grape press

Grapes are fed into the press (also called a de-stemmer or crusher), and we soon see the pristine white wheel tainted a bright green from the crushed grape pressings made up of grape skins and seed residue. The crushed residue is scraped into a trough whilst the grape juice is simultaneously siphoned of into a collection tank. Using a pipette Steve gives us a sample of the clean grape juice – it tastes gloriously sweet, pure and fruity, much like a cloudy apple juice.

Grape skin pressings

Layers of playdo-like grape skin pressings being scraped away

Lastly we enter a large shed to see the final stage of wine fermentation. Inside the cool shed big wine barrels hold different wines at different stages of aging and maturation. Steve shows us a barrel of his famous Zinfandel which is close to being ready for bottling. Again we get a sample and taste the delicious spicy, aromatic flavours of this red wine. It seems a perfect match with something like a glazed ham studded with cloves or a spiced Christmas pudding and instantly make plans to enjoy this at our next Christmas in July gathering.

Maturing zinfandel

Maturing barrels of zinfandel

With our wine tour complete we gleefully purchase more wines than we have cellaring space for and head back to Sydney, the combination of wine, warm afternoon sun and gentle purr of the engine making me curl up contentedly like a well-fed lazy house cat. Though brief, it was a very enjoyable and memorable sojourn to the Hunter. The 3 – 4 hour drive back to Sydney after a trip to the Hunter is normally not a pleasant one as it signifies the end of a trip or holiday – but as driving back in the Porsche still formed part of the day’s planned activities, it didn’t seem nearly as tedious as it normally did and we arrived back in Sydney in no time at all.

Driving the porsche back to Sydney

Driving the Porsche back to Sydney after our brief sojourn to the Hunter

Even if it was just for one short day, it was nice to enjoy some of the finer pleasures of life. There are worse things in life than to be blessed with good genetics, enjoying fast cars and quaffing plenty of good wine.

C’est la vie.



Piggs Peake Winery

697 Hermitage Road, Pokolbin; +612 6574 7000


Foodie in the know:

Piggs Peake wines aren’t currently stocked in liquor or wine speciality stores, but are available at selected restaurants. Alternatively, head to their website to order direct.

View Piggs Peake Winery in a larger map

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Conor @ HoldtheBeef August 14, 2010 at 10:10 pm

Good god I would be too nervous driving someone else’s Porsche (you know, as opposed to all my own Porsches) 100% sober let alone while doing a pile of wine tastings!

Very interesting to read about the science of getting boozed. I wonder what the mechanism is behind building up a tolerance – go long enough without a drink and you can seemingly get sl0shed from half a shandy.
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2 mademoiselle délicieuse August 15, 2010 at 10:50 am

Heheh, the husband and I will be spending a few days at a Hunter Valley resort at the end of the month. There won’t be much to do – we’ll be enjoying the quiet pleasures of reading books and mags, watching tv and soaking in the tub! (I go patchy red when I drink, although I can hold my alcohol despite my looks.)

3 angie August 15, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Thanks for the educational little opening =) It doesn’t take alot for me to go pink! What a wonderful birthday present for the co-pilot and it sounds like a great day despite all the little things.
angie recently posted..Strawberry- White Chocolate &amp Coconut Sweetheart Muffin – All of Ryans faves in one!My Profile

4 OohLookBel August 17, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Great post, and quite educational, too! That Porsche is seriously drool-worthy, though I’d be scared of even a leaf falling onto its paintwork. I love the names of the wines – house of sticks, lol!
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5 Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella August 17, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Aha! I can really see the former scientist coming out in this post! 😛 Love how you did the trip in style!
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6 Sara (Belly Rumbles) August 18, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Thanks for the genetics lesson, so that’s why I can hold my booze. What an awesome way to tour around the Hunter, even if it was only for one day.

7 Maria@TheGourmetChallenge August 18, 2010 at 4:37 pm

fresh grape pressing were always my favourite. I remember my parenst warning me if I drank too much of the frshly squeezed grape juice I’d get drunk…it never happened. Parents lied to me again!!

This sounds like a bit of a dream to me, drink wine and drive and awesome car! incredibly jealous right now
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8 Celeste @ Berrytravels August 18, 2010 at 5:23 pm

*whistles* that’s a sweet looking car! I’d love to have been able to travel a day in your shoes – fast cars, wines and a gorgeous day? Too much to envy!

Thanks on the heads up on Piggs Peake, I’m always on the lookout for more beautiful wines to try out. Will have to see exactly how I’m going to be able to achieve that hmmmm..

And hooray for good genetics! (Thankfully I have them too!)
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9 Corinne @ Gourmantic August 20, 2010 at 12:11 pm

I’d be so nervous behind the wheel that I wouldn’t enjoy the trip! Much prefer to ride in someone else’s car, which I did once, and she was such a bad driver!

“The Porsche was better than my little old Honda.” I should hope so! :)
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10 Adrian @ Food Rehab August 21, 2010 at 8:08 pm

um “tour of the backstage winery” yes please…along with a Porsche for the day?! Hell yes!

Thanks for the informative post indeed! Looks like you had a blast.
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11 Ellie (Almost Bourdain) August 23, 2010 at 1:57 pm

What a great post. Very informative.
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12 Arwen from Hoglet K August 28, 2010 at 7:03 pm

I love the piggy names of all the wines! The grape skin removing machine looks amazing, and I’m glad that the Porsche was better than the Honda!
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13 Arwen from Hoglet K August 28, 2010 at 7:32 pm

And I forgot to mention, that I’m glad you included the bits about the enzymes!

14 Forager September 3, 2010 at 3:35 pm

Hey Conor – I think there are definitely legs in that theory as I have observed the same. I’m sure you can build up gradual tolerance with practice and perhaps with seasoned drinking perform better at tasks than others with the same blood alcohol limit. Maybe Catalyst should test the theory out..

Hey MD – Nice. That’s when we went back too! I wonder if we were in the same wineries… Patchy so you have some enzymes happening but not enough?

Hey Angie – Definitely a nice little present for him and I think he enjoyed it despite having to be designated driver!

Hey Ooh Look Bel – ha! I was thinking house of bricks when we were driving around dodging stray sticks and branches threatening the Porsche!

Hey Lorraine – The only way baby. Well – not the only way, but I like to dream. :)

Hey Sara – No worries, great little tidbit note if it ever gets asked at a trivia session!

Hey Maria – Oooh that’s mean! Your parents were just worried you’d drink all the pre-wine juice and they’d have no wine to make! Cruel!

Hey Celeste – Yes, Hooray for good genetics! Money can hire you the porsche and buy you the wines but genetics is luck of the draw so thankfully we can drink! Piggs Peake is a winner of a winery so check them out if you get a chance!

Hey Corinne – I know what you mean. I was too nervous to drive too – but then, I can’t drive a manual so it’s just as well I didn’t drive. I imagine a nick would cost a fortune!

Hey Adrian – We sure did. Went all out on spoiling ourselves for the day. I highly recommend it!

Hey Ellie – Thanks! Glad you found it informative! Are you blessed with the gene?

Hey Arwen – The names of the Piggs Peake wines are great fun and Steve the owner is a blast too. I never see him without a loud Hawaiian shirt on. And at the end of the day – I was glad the Porsche was better than my little Honda and my money was worthwhile!

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