Nobody knows if wine is bad for you, it seems. That's just as well because we're drinking more of it than ever. Kate Watson-Smyth sips the facts

IT'S SATURDAY - the morning after the night before. So how much did you drink last night? A couple of glasses of wine in the interests of preventing heart disease, or more than half a bottle which, if you are a woman, dramatically increases the risk of cancer. Or were you so confused by the conflicting messages that you drank several bottles to help you forget about the whole thing?

Research published this week purports to show that two or three glasses of wine a day can significantly reduce the risk of cancer. Strange that. A similar study put out earlier in the week carried the message that women who drink between two and five glasses a day will increase the risk of breast cancer.

It doesn't take a scientist to deduce that the advice has never been more contradictory, but despite that, the British are in the throes of a passionate love affair with the grape. In the past 30 years, wine consumption has soared by more than 450 per cent, while it has only doubled in America and has (believe it or not) fallen by half in France.

One reason, say vintners, is that Britain does not have its own wine culture and that other wine-producing countries have seized the opportunity to create a new market.

Alex Ignatieff, wine buyer at Harvey Nicholls, goes so far as to say that Britain has become the wine capital of the world. "The main reason for this is the emergence of New World wines, which have been aggressively marketed in this country.

"Wine sellers in places like Uruguay were faced with two choices - either to try and persuade the great aunt to give up her pink gin in favour of wine, or to try and create a new market. They went for the latter and have made a market out of nothing. There is a much greater choice of wine in this country than anywhere else in the world because we do not have a mature wine industry and so the market has exploded."

Further testament to our growing taste for wine is taking shape beneath the Cannon Street railway viaduct on the south bank of the Thames. By this time next year, the vast expanse of vaulted arches will be transformed into Vinopolis, a "City of Wine", no less.

The focal point of Vinopolis will be an "interactive" tour through 20 themed pavilions covering the main wine producing regions of the world. A trip round the Italian section, for example, will allow visitors to take simulated tours of Italy's wine country while sitting on a Vespa.

Tony Hodges, director of Wineworld, who came up with the plan for Vinopolis and leased the 100,000-sq-ft space from Railtrack, says one reason that wine has become so popular is that people are better educated and more widely travelled.

"Historically, wine was an aspirational drink for the gentry and the City but because of its availability in supermarkets, everyone drinks it now," he says. "People travel more and they want to try the wines that they have seen abroad."

The retailers have been quick to cash in on the growing taste for wine. Specialist off-licences, Victoria Wine and Thresher for example, each have around of 1,500 stores across the country. But the real story has been the rise of the supermarkets.

Safeway, which stocks more than 500 wines, says that at the moment seven out of every 10 bottles are sold in a supermarket, compared with fewer than four just a decade ago. According to a spokeswoman for the store: "Palates are becoming much more sophisticated and drinking as an everyday habit has become much more acceptable."

But what are we to make of the health risks, particularly for those who are indulging in a glass or three every day?

Caroline Stacey, the food editor of Time Out magazine, says she distrusts much of the research. "It seems to me that scientists come out with a different message every day and you never quite know how reliable their studies are. I really don't think people should take that much notice. I drank wine in moderation all through my pregnancy and I think that science is just used as a way of justifying puritanism."

Jason Rabinowitz, a research manager at the Design Council and lover of fine wines, is similarly dismissive of the health warnings. "If I read something that says wine is good for me then I will take notice of that but if I see an article saying it's bad then I tend to ignore it," he says.

Sir Richard Doll, a leading consultant at the Cancer Studies Unit for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and Britain's most famous medical researcher, has concluded that alcohol in moderation is good for you. "I can see no reason whatsoever for thinking that wine drinking would reduce the risk of cancer," he says.

"The benefit of alcohol is in the prevention of heart disease, but that is only for those over the age of 45. However, it is quite clear that there is an all-over benefit in moderate consumption and two drinks a day are good for you."

So with that cheerful thought in mind, perhaps it's time to nip down to the pub for a lunch-time glass - strictly medicinal of course.

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