How healthy is wine?

Initially it was simply a hunch: the Greek physician and founder of western medicine, Hippocrates, recommended diluted wine for the treatment of headaches, digestive upsets and the pains of sciatica.

The ancient Romans as well believed in the healing effects of the fermented juice of the fruit of the vine. Julius Caesar prescribed a daily ration for his soldiers – not only to bolster their courage in battle, but also to safeguard them against intestinal infections.

Wine as ‘medicine’ has most certainly remained a hypothesis to this day, one that cannot be proved by modern science. But the picture with regard to prophylaxis and prevention is different. It has been repeatedly substantiated that moderate but regular consumption of wine has a positive effect on the heart and circulatory system – some studies even suggest that red wine can have a preventive effect against cancer.

These considerations were brought home, above all, to a wide audience when news media reported on the so-called ‘French Paradox’.

The short version: at the beginning of the 1990s, researchers determined that the general public in France – compared with other countries – suffered from a significantly lower instance of heart and circulatory ailments. And that was true despite the wide-ranging fame of the French nation for nearly everything but a Spartan and abstemious lifestyle: goose liver, opulent sauces, lots of cheese – none of it sounds like a recipe to put one on a path to better health. But above all, the French love to drink red wine. And exactly this is the reason, according to experts at the time, why they, all in all, enjoy better health than other national cultures. Because there are elements contained in red wine, that, according to the initial studies, reduce the mortality rate from circulatory ailments to a figure lower than that found, for example, in the USA. To put it bluntly: average life expectancy for a French(wo)man would be 2.5 years higher (76.5 as opposed to 74 years) than for an American.

And it was primarily the Americans who sat up and took notice of this phenomenon.

When TV journalist Morley Safer (on the television programme ‘60 Minutes’) presented the French physician Dr Serge Renaud, who explained in great detail that certain compounds found in red wine would significantly reduce the risks of a patient with heart and circulatory troubles, American drinking habits changed overnight. Consumption of red wine grew by nearly 100%.

As a result, the ‘French Paradox’ was tested and put under the microscope once more and scientifically examined. But which substances found in red wine are the ones that, according to scientific findings, have a positive effect on our health?

In one instance it is the so-called polyphenols. This is a basket-term for the pigments and tannins that give a red wine its colour and structure. They come from the grape skins, the pips and the stalks. A wine that is matured in an oaken cask will also add polyphenols from the wood.

Polyphenols, according to countless studies, dilate the blood vessels thanks to the nitrogen oxides they contain, and thus promote better circulation. Their infection- and thrombosis-hindering characteristics are also a preventative against heart and circulatory complaints. The polyphenols dissolved in red wine also function in the human body as ‘antioxidants’, they can bind and neutralise the so-called ‘free radicals’ – these unstable molecules that are created in the body resulting from chemical reactions in the metabolic process, which can cause deterioration of cellular walls, in the worst case causing cancer.

Another substance in red wine that protects the cells is called ‘resveratrol’. Recent studies have indicated that resveratrol significantly extends the life expectancy of various organisms, in that it – among other virtues – retards the aging process at the cellular level by means of regulating a gene. Austrian red wines on the average contain a great deal of resveratrol. A study conducted by the Federal Office for Viticulture has shown that Blaufränkisch from Mittelburgenland shows the highest content of resveratrol. The proportion of this substance is higher in these wines even than in the top French wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

One of the most important studies done in recent years on the subject of the ‘French Paradox’ was published in the scientific journal ‘Nature’.

Tony Turner, a molecular biologist at the University of Leeds, explains in the report how an alcohol-free extract from red wine retards production of the protein ‘Endothelin-1’. An important finding for issues of health – the substances that inhibit production of Endothelin-1 can inhibit those deposits that form in blood vessels because of excessive consumption of fats in the diet. With this, they contribute greatly to reducing the risk of heart attack. Turner says, ‘With this it is perfectly clear, that moderate enjoyment of red wine can set in motion effective mechanisms for the promotion of improved health’.

Author: Herbert Hacker


Wine in Moderation

Position Paper of the Austrian wine industry