Can you have your claret and drink it?

Wine has been credited with reducing the risks of heart disease - but bingeing will do you no good, warns Anthony Rose
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Use a little wine for thy stomach's sake? St Paul's prescription for a healthy lifestyle holds equally good 2,000 years on, although today's pundit might well go further and advise half a bottle a day to keep the doctor away. The anti-alcohol strictures of the temperance movement have given way over the last decade to a more measured, rational approach to wine. More than 90 scientific reports published since 1991 provide strong evidence for the link between wine consumed in moderation and healthy living.

Use a little wine for thy stomach's sake? St Paul's prescription for a healthy lifestyle holds equally good 2,000 years on, although today's pundit might well go further and advise half a bottle a day to keep the doctor away. The anti-alcohol strictures of the temperance movement have given way over the last decade to a more measured, rational approach to wine. More than 90 scientific reports published since 1991 provide strong evidence for the link between wine consumed in moderation and healthy living.

Healthy drinking is as much to do with how as what. The therapeutic benefit of wine with meals in particular has been shown to offer all sorts of pluses, from digestive aid to a lower risk of coronary heart disease. And wine drinkers tend to be healthy eaters. So Dr Anne Tjonneland found in a Danish study of diet and drinking patterns. There is a strong link between drinking wine and eating healthy foods such as fruit, vegetables, salad, fish and olive oil. So a lower incidence of certain heart disease may be attributable not only to the wine itself, but to a well thought-out diet generally.

The beneficial properties of red wines have been debated ad nauseam since the discovery of the French Paradox, which found that, despite imbibing skinfuls of red wine, the French suffer a lower rate of heart disease than Coca-Cola-loving Americans. Whatever the actual health benefits, the perception has certainly given a huge boost to the health of the wine industry. After the American TV broadcast of the 60 Minutes documentary in 1991, red wine sales suddenly rocketed. It happened in Thailand, too, when the King, like some latter-day Marie-Antoinette, told his people to go out and drink red wine.

Less is known about the health benefits of white wines. But while browsing the health and hangover pages on the Internet, purely for professional reasons, of course, I happened on some advice to the effect that "purer drinks, such as vodka or white wine, contain fewer hangover-causing distillates than do darker ones". According to a Dr Keul in Germany, research on white wine supports the view that a healthy life and the moderate consumption of white wine are components in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Even white wine drinkers can take heart, then.

But you can't always have your claret or your hock and drink it. The phenolics which protect the heart from cardio-vascular disease are the selfsame nasty allergy-causing culprits in red wines that trigger headaches, migraines and hangovers. And, let's face it, the French Paradox is tongue-tied on the subject of the liver, not to mention any of the other organs which do not take kindly to the over-consumption of alcohol. No matter how you dress it up, alcohol is a toxin, and bingeing is bad for you.

If the manner and style of wine you drink makes a difference, does drinking better but less pay health dividends too? Where price is critical, the big-volume companies seek the shortest route to a wine with as little wrong with it as possible and as long a shelf life. Sprays and preservatives are second nature, albeit within legal limits, while small producers of handcrafted wines increasingly tend to keep sprays and additives to a minimum.

The response of environmentally aware winemakers to industrial-style processing is most visible in the organic and biodynamic movements. By adopting more natural methods of cultivation and reducing chemical sprays, producers believe that the extra labour costs involved are worthwhile if the vineyards become healthier and more resistant over time to pests and fungal problems. Whether, as the marketing men would love them to, a healthier vineyard has a knock-on effect on the wines and the consumer, is a moot point. Probably the most that can be said in their favour is that the purity of the image creates a certain feelgood factor.

Maybe, as Patrick Matthews points out in his thought-provoking book Real Wine (£14.99, Mitchell Beazley, published on Thursday), we should worry more about what gets taken out of wine than what goes into it. In their efforts to ensure wine stability, industrial processors would rather the baby be sucked out with the bathwater than leave a "bacterial time-bomb" on the shelf, as authors Hugh Johnson and James Halliday put it. Alastair Maling, a Kiwi winemaker, points out that "the bigger volume the wine, the greater the risk of a product recall for some technical fault". Compared to a wine which might cost more to age in oak barrels, a young mass-produced red with a rapid turnaround rate may need several filtrations coupled with clarification by egg white and maybe even stabilisation by refrigeration and protein.

At the end of the day, paying more for a wine should be a fair indication that more time and effort has gone into all the fine details of good vineyard management and care in the making and maturing of the wine. The finer the wine then, the more pleasure you should be getting from sipping it rather than knocking it back. One instance where less is definitely better for your physical and financial well-being.

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