Drink: Case studies

Is red wine really good for your heart - if so, are some varieties better than others? Scientists and wine-makers are still arguing. Illustration by Rose Epple

Is wine really good for you, as an increasing number of scientific studies appear to be telling us? To get to the bottom of this complex and controversial issue, Safeway gathered together a battery of boffins in London last month to reveal the latest, cutting-edge findings on the subject of wine and health. Might there be an element of preaching by the converted to the converted? Er, yes. But actually, no boozer's charter emerged. No green light for your GP to prescribe Safeway's Chilean Merlot on tap. Not yet, at least. In a nutshell, the most that could be said for its health-giving properties is that wine, mainly red wine, taken in moderation, is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and possibly certain cancers.

Already a host of studies exist demonstrating that a little of what you like does you good. The evidence shows that wine, particularly red wine, contains anti-oxidants which, in common with green vegetables, tomatoes and citrus fruits, guard against heart disease. The latest evidence is impressive. Detailed research from Denis Blache of Dijon University shows that biologically active components that come from the skin of the grapes, known as flavonoids, act to inhibit dangerous low density lipoproteins (LDLs) in the blood. The most common flavonoids in wine are catechin and anthocyanins, but according to Blache, the most effective is resveratrol, which is also found in peanuts and mulberries.

Of the many disease-fighting proteins, resveratrol is a star because its anti-oxidant properties are highly effective, and it's found in significant concentrations in wine. Given the marketing potential in all this (something that won't have escaped the eagle eye of Safeway), will a new wine war break out, with different regions claiming to have the "healthiest" wines - namely, those with the greatest anti-oxidant properties?

It will come as little surprise to find that Denis Blache, from Burgundy country, found that "Burgundy wines are among the world's richest because Pinot Noir [the red Burgundy grape] is a good resveratrol producer ... both in young and older vintages."

Jenny Burns, who co-presented a paper from the University of Glasgow, argued forcibly - based on research into 60 wines - that the main factors producing anti-oxidant compounds are grape variety, growing conditions and the wine-making process.

Burns's research to date pinpoints Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon as being especially high in phenolic compounds, but she was careful to add that "some wines may be more beneficial than others, but we haven't yet identified a specific phenolic compound that could have a more beneficial effect". Clearly more consumption required in the name of science then.

Shortly after the seminar, meanwhile, it was reported in the journal Heart that, according to Jean Paul Broustet in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, the Bordeaux grape, has particularly large amounts of resveratrol and therefore helps prevent heart attacks. Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon and Chianti Classico have also been identified as high in anti-oxidant properties. The spectre looms of health-seeking wine drinkers studying wine league tables for their resveratrol content rather than their inherent quality.

But then there is the question of co-factors: do the people who drink red wine (generally from a higher social stratum, in this country at least) have healthier lifestyles anyway, eating better, exercising more, smoking less, which could confuse the extent to which the wine is responsible? Only a couple of weeks ago, the National Heart Forum reported that the incidence of heart disease was declining, especially among higher income consumers, because of a healthier lifestyle.

Here the evidence of Federico Leighton, flown in from Argentina for the Safeway forum, was interesting. His study compared a healthy Mediterranean diet to an unhealthy high fat diet. Not surprisingly, the Mediterranean diet was clearly more efficient than the high fat diet. But equally, the inclusion of wine in both diets was shown to be an added factor in protecting against heart disease.

Throughout the seminar, speakers were careful to reiterate that wine consumption, to be healthy, must also be moderate and sensible. What use after all is a strong ticker if the rest of you is as pickled as a rollmop herring. But exactly what is sensible drinking? The official jury is still out on this one, since one country's sensible drinking guidelines are another's licence to indulge. Recommendations on what's a sensible amount to drink each day vary from 32g or four units in Sweden to 60g a day in France. Peter Duff, from the pressure group Alcohol in Moderation (AIM), was there to tell us that AIM is pushing for a worldwide standard.

Following the heavyweight scientists, it was left to Andrew Barr, author of Drink (Bantam Press), to sum up for the gathering, albeit devoid of scientific evidence. Barr likes to call himself a controversialist and in two areas at least he lived up to his billing. He was rather loftily dismissive of science and, more dubiously, dismissed alcoholism as no disease at all. In one area, however, he was less controversial, adopting the layman's view that wine is good for you because it relaxes you, gives you pleasure and enables you to enjoy life more. All unsubstantiated, unverifiable and thoroughly sound common sense

White of the Week

1992 Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Kabinett, pounds 3.99, Majestic Wine Warehouse A special parcel at an astonishing price for a mature seven-year-old, from Germany's Mosel Valley. This is a featherweight (8 per cent alcohol), off-dry summery white with classic, appley fruitiness and the petrolly undertones which characterise the Riesling grape, as it evolves, from the vertigo-inducing slopes of Germany's Mosel Valley. This is the sort of genuine Riesling which makes a mockery of Liebfraumilch.

Red of the Week

1997 Capel Vale CV Pinot Noir, pounds 7.99, Majestic Wine Warehouse The curriculum vitae of this opulent red shows that it's made at Dr Peter Pratten's Capel Vale estate in Western Australia and from red Burgundy's Pinot Noir grape. Delightfully perfumed with cherryish undertones, this is an exotic, loganberry-fruity red with a smooth veneer of spicy oak.

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