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Claret Cure

In the 1950’s jingle, Chiquita Banana told us that “Bananas taste the best and are the best for you.” Who …

In the 1950’s jingle, Chiquita Banana told us that “Bananas taste the best and are the best for you.” Who knew the same was true of red wine?

As I travel around talking to corporate audiences about the wonderful world of wine, I am often asked about articles touting the health benefits of drinking red wine. These reports, occurring with increasing regularity, are hard to ignore.

As a promoter of wine consumption (in moderation, of course), I decided to look into the subject. The amount of literature on the health benefits of red wine is astounding. Volumes have been written not only in the general press, but in journals of research and medicine. While the range of benefits ascribed to wine reads like the claims of patent medicine hawkers of years past, underneath it all is a consensus that a glass or two a day should be part of your lifestyle. In fact, despite our puritanical aversion to saying anything nice about alcohol, red wine probably should be prescribed by your physician-and definitely by me, your “Wine Diva.”

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BENEFITS OF RED WINE

 When

Who 

Benefits 

400BC Hippocrates, physician Antiseptic, sedative
 1800sLouis Pasteur, scientist   General health and hygiene
 1926Raymond Pearl, biologist  Longevity
 1980sHundreds of clinical studies Reduce risk of heart/vascular disease by 50% in men, 30% in women 
 2005 Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, SeattleReduce risk of prostate cancer by 50% 
 2005 International Society for Biomedical researchReduce risk of cataracts by 50% 
 2005 Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Boston Lower risk of kidney dysfunction
 2005 University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy Flu prevention
 2005 American College of Rheumatology  Reduce the pain of arthritis
 2005 University of Michigan Hearing loss prevention

Reading the journals on this subject is a tough slog. These articles are a perfect storm of medicalese and vino babble (e.g., “Cis-resveratrol levels were comparable to those of the trans-isomer”), so I have taken on the task of cutting through the jargon and translating the substance into plain language. Here is my take on red wine and health.

The rationale offered for red wine’s health benefits rests on several chemical compounds not found in white wine or other types of alcoholic beverages. Red wine has polyphenols (a.k.a. antioxidants) found primarily in the grape skin and seeds that give the wine its color and taste. Simply put, the deeper the color of the wine, the more antioxidants. So Cabernet, Bordeaux and Syrah are “healthier” than Pinot Noir.

Where the wines came from may also factor into the equation. A new study provides evidence that grapes grown at higher altitudes produce more antioxidants and are therefore “healthier” than lowland grown grapes. Thus, grapes grown in the foothills of the Andes, higher elevations in California, and a few other locales are arguably more beneficial than their lowland counterparts. More studies need to weigh in on this, so don’t give up your Napa Valley Cabernet just yet.

That’s the good news. The bad news, or in medical vocabulary, a side effect, is that higher levels of antioxidants mean higher levels of tannins. Tannins are preservatives found naturally in red wine that play an important role in their graceful aging. But tannins are also the culprits in “red wine headaches,” which affect a sizable minority of wine drinkers. As wine ages, the effects of tannin fade along with the color of the wine, leaving old Burgundies with that most lovely of all wine shades, brick red. Alas, the health benefits also diminish, so if you are drinking for health reasons, drink young (wines less than five years old) and drink Cabernet, Bordeaux and Barolo. These wines are also the ones that benefit in taste most from aging. My advice? Drink young wines as your daily meal accompaniment and break out the old stuff for special occasions.

REDS THAT DO MORE

 Name of Wine or Grape

From 

 Aglianico Italy
 Barolo  Italy
 Bordeaux France
 Cabernet Chile, mountaineous areas of California
 Malbec Argentina
 Tannat Madiran region in South West France
 Tempranillo Ribera del Duero, Spain
 Touriga NacionaleDouro, Portugal 

Red wine headaches, by the way, can be “treated” with ordinary antihistamines taken an hour beforehand. If that does not do the trick, then the amount of tannin is the culprit. If so, switch from Cabernet to Pinot Noir, or to wines with even less tannin like Rioja, Chianti, Barbera and Beaujolais- Villages. Not as healthy perhaps as the big wines, but being headache free is important too. Drinking plenty of water also helps, as does eating while you are drinking.

There may be more to the story of red wine as the new “health drink” as science continues to explore the health virtues of wine. But enough about science and wine. I am an advocate of the pleasures of wine, and so to quote the sage advice of Benjamin Franklin, “Wine should be a laugh, not a lecture.”


Christine Ansbacher, DWS, CWE, who frequently writes about wine, is known as “The Wine Diva.”

      

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