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Red Wine: Drink to Your Health?

From phenols to Pinots, Colman Andrews investigates the bodily benefits of red wine.

It was a moment I’d always known would come one day: the accounting a late friend once called “paying the bar bill.” I had been drinking alcohol, moderately and sometimes immoderately, since years before I was legally entitled to, and wine had been an essential part of my life for many decades. Now I was sitting in a doctor’s office listening to a dire warning about the inevitable consequences of continued consumption at my present rate.

I finally got up the nerve to ask the question whose answer I dreaded: “Can I still drink wine at least a little?”

He laughed. “Of course you can,” he said. “I want you to drink wine. Two glasses of red every day. It’s good for you.”

Well, I thought, that could have been worse. Then I couldn’t help asking another question: “Can you give me a prescription for it, so my insurance will pick it up?”

“Don’t push your luck,” he replied.

For as long as there have been alcoholic beverages—beer may have been first brewed as early as 8000 b.c., wine is roughly 7,500 years old, distilled spirits date from the 12th century—they have been used as curatives. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates studied the medicinal uses of wine and recommended it as an antiseptic and a remedy for various ailments like anxiety, eye pain and urinary tract infections. In the New Testament, Paul famously counsels his young colleague Timothy to “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake….” For centuries, anyone who coughs or sniffles in Scotland has almost inevitably been offered a “wee dram” of whisky to stave off illness; similar treatment is endemic with vodka in Russia and Poland, mescal in Mexico, snake wine in China and Vietnam.

This isn’t just folklore. Scores of modern scientific studies from all over the world have shown again and again that moderate drinkers live longer than either teetotalers or heavy drinkers, and that such alcohol consumption by otherwise healthy individuals decreases blood clotting and increases HDL (“good” cholesterol). Moderate drinking—variously defined as anywhere from one to three drinks a day and usually no more than 14 a week for men, seven a week for women (a drink meaning a five-ounce glass of wine, 12 ounces of beer or a one-and-a-half-ounce shot of 80-proof spirit)—may also measurably reduce the risk, according to various studies, of ischemic stroke, thyroid and kidney cancer, both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, osteoporosis, arthritis, peripheral artery disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and the common cold.

Though these health benefits seem to accrue from any form of alcohol, from Amstel Light to pure agave tequila, there appear to be additional advantages to drinking wine—and according to some studies and a lot of fervent believers, to red wine most of all.

As will be apparent to anyone who has marveled at the complexity of flavor and aroma in a glass of good white Burgundy or first-rate Chianti Classico—or who has noted with amazement the dramatic differences between, say, a Riesling from the Mosel region and one from the Clare Valley in Australia—wine is an extremely complex substance, and not just metaphorically. Almost a thousand components other than alcohol and water have been identified in wine. Among these are several hundred organic compounds called phenols, which are what conspire to give each wine type its unique flavor, aroma and texture, or mouthfeel. More tantalizingly, some of these are also antioxidants, elements that fight the oxidative stress implicated in many cardiovascular diseases and in the predations of the aging process in general. Because many of these compounds are found in the skin of grapes, and because red wines are made with longer skin contact than whites or rosés, well…

On November 17, 1991, 60 Minutes aired a segment about the French Paradox. Simply put, the paradox in question is the French consume vast amounts of saturated fat (including Brobdingnagian quantities of butter, cheese, and duck and goose fat) yet enjoy a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease. This phenomenon was identified and named by Serge Renaud, a French medical researcher who went on to postulate that the potentially deleterious effects of the French diet were mitigated by Gallic consumption of…red wine.

Red wine sales in America increased 40 percent almost literally overnight, and some California winemakers attempted (mostly unsuccessfully) to obtain permission to legally tout its reputed benefits on their labels. Not everyone was convinced. Critics suggested that statistical error or (in the words of one) “different ways of coding coronary mortality,” not all those bottles of vin rouge, were responsible for France’s low rate of heart disease. Others proposed that few parallel paradoxes had been reported in other countries with even higher per capita wine consumption than France. There were even some studies indicating that beer or distilled spirits might have more salubrious effects than wine.

Renaud, who was then part of the faculty at—why are we not surprised?—the University of Bordeaux (he has since retired), seemed to equivocate a bit himself when he and a colleague published a paper in 1992 in The Lancet suggesting that because wine is commonly consumed with meals, it is absorbed more slowly than alcohol drunk alone and thus affects artery-clogging platelets when they are “under the influence of alimentary lipids that are known to increase their reactivity.” That said, Renaud and his colleague admitted that the superiority of wine over other alcoholic beverages in this regard “awaits confirmation by experimental studies.”

Red wine got another boost in 2003, when David Sinclair, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, discovered the life-extending properties (in laboratory mice) of one of the compounds found in wine, resveratrol. Resveratrol is said to work by stimulating a group of genes called sirtuins, which help slow the aging process and promote general health. (The effects of ultra-low-calorie diets apparently are linked to the same genes.) Unfortunately, Sinclair later said that the resveratrol found in wine, even red wine, is so minimal that you’d have to drink between 150 and 200 bottles a day for it to be effective. Still, he thought he was on to a good thing, and he and another doctor founded a company called Sirtris to produce high-dosage resveratrol in pill form; pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline bought it in 2008 for $720 million. (But production never happened due to safety concerns. Other companies, however, have manufactured pills, and there are a number on the market.)

Dr. Philip Norrie, an Australian physician and winemaker who styles himself as The Wine Doctor, is taking another approach: He produces resveratrol-enhanced wines in South Australia’s McLaren Vale wine region; these bottlings, red and white both, contain up to 100 milligrams of artificially added resveratrol per liter, compared with about one milligram for most whites and three to six milligrams for most reds. Dr. Norrie has also suggested that white wine, while lower in antioxidants than red, is actually more beneficial because its antioxidant molecules “are smaller and thus…can be more easily absorbed.”

Scientists have, in any case, started looking at other phenols found in wine, specifically a class of flavonoids with the mouth-filling name of oligomeric proanthocyanidins, or OPCs. OPCs are antioxidants and, unlike resveratrol, are present in wine in quantities that might be large enough to actually affect body chemistry.

If red wine does have beneficial properties not found in other kinds of alcohol, a logical question might be: Do some red wines or grape varieties have more of these properties than others? “This idea is extremely controversial,” says eminent cardiologist Dr. Valentin Fuster, past president of both the American Heart Association and the World Heart Federation and now director of Mount Sinai Heart Hospital in New York City. While some researchers have found the highest concentrations of trans-resveratrol, potentially the most active form of the compound, in Pinot Noir grapes and other related grapes grown in cool regions, a 2007 Danish study stated conclusively that “no region can be said to produce wines with a significantly higher level of trans-resveratrol than all other regions.”

The idea that there might be some correlation between wine type and health benefits goes back awhile. In 1974, a homeopathic doctor and acupuncturist named E. A. Maury published a book called Soignez-vous par le Vin (Heal Yourself with Wine). Maury didn’t natter on about resveratrol or OPCs, but he believed categorically that the mineral content of certain wines, leached from the soil in which the grapes were grown, had very specific salutary properties. If your cholesterol was high, he counseled, drink the wines of the Loire or Côtes de Provence. Poor vision? Light red wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy. Overweight? Two glasses of Côte de Beaune Burgundy with meals will set you straight. Fever? A daily bottle of Champagne.

“That guy should be in jail,” jokes Dr. Gerald Imber, a prominent Manhattan plastic surgeon well-known in wine circles and an expert on antioxidants and the aging process. “There’s just no evidence for that kind of thing at all.” Indeed, Maury’s book is now considered to be a sort of eccentric artifact. Even the descriptive note provided by the company that recently reissued it reads, “So as not to reserve this hilarious reading matter to a few insiders who go antiquing at flea markets or used book stores, Editions NiL has decided to republish it…with its share of ‘pearls.’?”

So, finally, are there health benefits to drinking red wine? The Arizona cardiologist Dr. Tedd M. Goldfinger, who is president of the Renaud Society, a “society of medical professionals with an interest in better health and a passion for wine,” named in honor of you-know-whom, admits that “differentiating benefits unique to wine…has been difficult and inconsistent” in the absence of any “well-executed, randomized, double-blinded intervention trial.” Dr. Fuster raises another point: “If red wine is better than white or other forms of alcohol,” he asks rhetorically, “is it the flavonoids, the resveratrol? Perhaps, but some people believe there are other mechanisms at work in wine. We really don’t know.” Dr. Imber adds that while incontrovertible research may not exist, “looking at everything we know, we would have to assume that red wine is more beneficial than other forms of alcohol—and I want to, anyway!”