Monday, October 11, 2010

Go Ahead, You Know You Want to...

Ah, vino... one of life's great pleasures- not only because it's associated with drunken good times, but it can also accentuate gourmet meals, strike up conversations with intelligent aficionados and just plain taste good. But who would have thought, with all the obvious things wine has going for it, this "nectar of the gods" could actually be doing your body good at the same time?

It all started back in the early nineties when a European doctor came up with a theory commonly referred to as The French Paradox. This idea (and eventual coinciding scientific study) brought into question how the indulgently chic people of France could gorge on a diet full of butter, cream and highly saturated animal fats while puffing away on endless cigarettes each day and STILL have a lower incidence of heart and cardiovascular disease than their American counterparts.

Lucky for us, this esteemed docteur concluded that the French people's drink of choice- wine- was to thank.

The introduction of this "paradox" to the public prompted hundreds of scientific studies throughout the world. I'll attempt to outline the basic health findings for you below...

  1. Wines, especially those of the red variety, contain polyphenols (otherwise known to us laypeople as ANTIOXIDANTS) in their tannins and flavanoids. Why are antioxidants so important? Simply put, they attack and get rid of free radicals in the body (brought to you by outside sources like pollution, cigarette smoke, radiation and pesticides). Hence, ingesting these wino-rific polyphenols helps your body rid itself of really nasty toxins.
  2. Where does the popular saying, "Drink one glass of red wine a day to reduce your risk of heart disease" come from? It seems that these same tannins and flavanoids act on your cholesterol as well, bringing your HDL (good cholesterol) number up while simultaneously lowering your LDL (bad cholesterol) number- without YOU having to lift a finger! (Well I guess you DO have to move your arm to drink wine- but it's a heck of a lot easier than hopping on a treadmill for 30 mintues...) These lower LDL and higher HDL numbers lead to less risk of heart attack and stroke.
  3. The last NOTABLE thing to mention in terms of health benefits derived from wine has to do with- shock!- it's content of ethanol alcohol. Yes, the part that gets us drunk, brings on dehydration-induced headaches and damages our liver if consumed in overzealous quantities. Some studies have shown that SMALL quantities of ethanol alcohol can act as a relaxer, reducing high mental stress. Fancy that ;)

"So how exactly should we approach wine buying?" you ask (because Lord knows I do every time I enter the grocery or liquor store). As I mentioned earlier, TANNINS are the thing when it comes to drinking wine for health. Since tannins are found predominantly in the skin of the grape, red wines are the way to go. Here's an interesting fact for ya: red grapes can be used to make white wines too. The only difference? The skin of the grape is not used in the making of your favorite Chardonnays, Pinot Grigios and Sauvignon Blancs, which is why many white wines lack the sort of antioxidant powers of its red brothers and sister. (Though white wines do contain a higher level of ethanol alcohol, if that whole "reducing stress" argument appeals to you)

Red wines with a high tannin content tend to be:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Red Zinfandel
  • Nebbiolo

Medium tannin content:

  • Sangiovese (Chiantis fall into this category)
  • Syrah/Shiraz
  • SOME Pinot Noirs

There is much debate about the sulfites found in wine and it all gets very technical, so what I'll say is this: contrary to common myth, it seems sulfites are NOT the cause of those pesky wine headaches most of us complain about (unless you have a sulfite allergy, which is very rare and would affect you while consuming other foods and drinks preserved with the help of sulfites- store bought dried fruits are a great example). If you are concerned about your intake of sulfites, go organic! It's against the law for organic wine companies in the United States to put additional sulfites in their products, which also means a shorter shelf life on those puppies.

So what DOES cause the headache? Well, the jury (and research) is still out on this one. One very good argument is the addition of chemicals and high processing we see in many mass-produced wines (I'm sure you can think of a few of those popular/cheaper names). Again, to stick with the healthiest of wines, your best option is going to be a vintage high tannin red. Vintage wines are made with traditional distillation techniques found in France and other Mediterranean countries, as opposed to those cheaper popular wines found in everything from your local grocery store to the 7/11 down the street. (Side note: any wines with a high tannin content should age AT LEAST 3 years to let the flavor soften before consumption- check the year on the label)

Now all this is not to say: "Go to the nearest wine store, buy three bottles of wine, drink them tonight and let the antioxidants go to work." Quite the contrary. Most research shows the ideal amount of "healthy wine" an individual should consume is 1-2 glasses a day for females and 2-3 glasses for males. (This of course may vary depending on your size, genetic background and tolerance). Too much alcohol of any kind can severely damage your kidneys and liver, so don't get CARRIED away. Stick to 1-2 glasses of the good stuff (instead of the $3 Trader Joe's sale that I stumbled upon) and DO NOT drink and drive!

There you have it, my reasoning for why we should all drink [good] wine. No pressure, of course ;)

***Disclaimer: Drink responsibly and please remember that I am by no means an expert on this topic (yet) so please don't let this serve as your be all/end all source on wine and health. And if you happen to be an expert, or one who knows more than I, please don't hesitate to email me with corrections at

Here's where I found most of my info:

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