Friday, 4 January 2013

The red wine diet

So you’re reading a wine column in the first week of January, a time when most people are laying off the booze. That means either:

a.  You are a thorough type who always reads the paper from cover to cover, whether the contents are of interest to you or not. Or,

b.  You are obsessed with wine and pounce on any chance to further your knowledge of the subject. Or,

c.  Following a period of over-indulgence, you are scanning the page for tips on detoxing or, even better, a report on new research which shows that having a glass of wine on each day in January is actually beneficial to your health.

If you chose c., then I may be able to offer some solace. Professor Roger Corder’s 2009 book, The Wine Diet, explains how consuming wine can contribute to a long and healthy life. So grab yourself a glass (a small one mind) of red wine, a handful of nuts and berries and a square of dark chocolate and read on.

The French Paradox, whereby the French exhibit relatively low rates of coronary heart disease, despite high consumption of saturated fat, has been known about since the late 1970s. Since then there have been numerous studies investigating the relationship between wine consumption and general health and longevity. Roger Corder cites certain parts of the world which have an abnormally high proportion of centenarians, and also have a diet which tends to include daily consumption of wine – and especially red wine. Southwest France, Crete and Sardinia all fit this pattern.

Whereas inhabitants of Crete and Sardinia can probably count a typical Mediterranean diet low in red meat, high in fish, fruit and vegetables with olive oil rather than butter as part of their healthy lifestyle, people who live in Southwest France cannot. This part of France is the land of hearty, but hardly healthy, food like cassoulet and duck confit which, you might think, would harden your arteries on sight. And yet the people here are seemingly healthier and more long-lived than their counterparts in northern Europe, even with the same consumption of alcohol.

This conundrum prompted Professor Corder to investigate the possibility that wine, more specifically red wine and, even more specifically, certain types of red wine, may have a protective effect on health. His research has led him to identify a type of polyphenol, known as procyanidins, as the key to protecting the body’s vascular function, itself vital to prevent atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart disease and possibly also stroke and certain cancers.

To cut a long scientific treatise short, red wines from France’s Southwest are found to have a high level of procyanidins. The bad news for white or rosé wine drinkers is that they do not occur in these wines. However, many studies have found that a small amount of alcohol (literally a small glass of wine of any colour per day) may have a beneficial effect on health for most people.

Women, however, are faced with the iniquitous choice of knowing that a small amount of wine each day may help prevent certain diseases, but that this same “dose” of wine may also raise their risk of developing breast cancer.

The good news, if you are keen to escape from the daily “glass of red wine hell” that drinkers subject themselves to, is that procyanidins are also found in things other than red wine. Strangely enough, red grape juice doesn’t contain them, as the compounds are extracted from the grape pip only during alcoholic fermentation, and not through pressing.

It’s no surprise that super-fruit pomegranate is deemed to be a good source of polyphenols, however, blueberries are not, according to Professor Corder. Chocolate and walnuts are also on the approved list – but don’t go reaching for a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut, we’re talking dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids) which has had minimal processing, as procyanidins are often removed during more industrial production techniques. Apples (though not apple juice), cranberries (including dried), various berry fruits, as well as surprises like cinnamon all get the thumbs up.

It’s only natural to react favourably to news stories which tell us that something we enjoy is in fact good for us, without perhaps paying full attention to the whole story. Roger Corder is at pains to point out that moderate daily wine consumption can be beneficial only as part of an overall healthy lifestyle which includes a balanced diet and regular exercise. Sorry about that.

However, if you fancy searching out some of those high-procyanidin wines from Southwest France, here’s a good place to start:

Château Aydie Madiran 2009 £13.49 from Waitrose
The wines of Madiran, on the way to the Pyrenees in the far southwest corner of France, typify the high procyanidin wines that Corder recommends. Made predominantly from the Tannat grape which, as its name seems to suggest, is pretty high in tannin, they are deep coloured, full-bodied and structured wines which can age over many years. The current vintage is 2009 and is a relatively gentle introduction to the style.

Drinking wine with food is a more healthy way to indulge than propping up the bar or slumped on the sofa and these wines positively demand food – their full-on structure is tamed and the freshness of the fruit is revealed in all its glory.

Other producers to watch out for: Alain Brumont is the self-styled king of Madiran and his wines from Châteaux Bouscassé and Montus are long-lived classics. Rivalling Brumont for supremacy is Didier Barré at Domaine Berthoumieu, whose wines, including top cuvée Charles de Batz, are available from Guildford-based Southwest France specialists Les Caves de Pyrène.

If you would like to up your intake of procyanidins, but can’t get on with Madiran, then look for wines with body, structure and tannin (especially those made from Cabernet Sauvignon) and you will be on the right lines.

For the committed, there is much more to read in Roger Corder’s book, The Wine Diet (published by Sphere, £7.99).

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