Wine Questions And The French Paradox
Ah, the French Paradox; how a nation of cheese, confit duck and wine lovers can suffer from less heart disease than the rest of the West.

Well, they don’t really. The last thirty years has seen something of a gradual annihilation of the science (or pseudo-statistics, if you prefer) behind this famous contradiction. Just like the rest of us, the French are getting increasingly overweight, and just like the rest of us, heart disease is creeping steadily upwards. Most shocking of all however, and anathema to the hallowed principles of cliché Gallic culture, is that French wine consumption is falling too. Still, evidence can be found that many French do indeed live healthier and longer lives than much of the Western world (bar the smoking), and the purported silver bullet responsible for this longevity has been fired, supposedly, from the bibulous barrels of Bordeaux and Burgundy – i.e. the French live longer, because they drink more red wine than we do.

The impact of this proclamation was far reaching. In the years following the release of this research, American red wine consumption reportedly leapt by a massive 44%. It’s been known for a while that red wine could have certain health benefits, and postulated historically (and far more romantically) since Hellenic Greece, but much of the science has inevitably evolved from somewhat ingenuous data into marketing spiel. Below is an attempt to separate some of the facts from the fads, and to point the heart-conscious drinker in the direction of wines that could – possibly – make you just that little bit healthier.

What are these ‘antioxidants’ I keep hearing about?

‘Oh, it’s got antioxidants in it,’ is a phrase bandied about rather eagerly these day, and is increasingly being touted in regard to red wine, but what exactly are they? Well, as you may suspect with such a prefix, antioxidants help combat problems caused by oxidation. Oxidation occurs when molecules within the body lose electrons to molecules of electrically-charged oxygen floating through the blood stream. These charged molecules are known by the rather grandiose term ‘free-radicals’, which in turn can cause a number of problems for the body, and are in part responsible for the development of diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Antioxidants inhibit the damaging effects of these free-radicals, and fruit and veg and indeed, wine, all contain certain antioxidants. One of these in resveratrol, a compound found in the skin of red-wine grapes. The benefits of this on humans is still being investigated, but research conducted on mice indicated that it seems to have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and blood-sugar lowering benefits. What is often overlooked however, is that the dose given (well, forced upon) these rats was over 100 times that which is found in your average glass of wine.

Which wines have the most antioxidants?

It seems that in general, the darker the wine, the more antioxidants. Cabernet Sauvignon is said to be the best, but the skins of fellow compatriots such as Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, Syrah and Malbec all seem to include comparatively high levels on antioxidants. Vines grown in somewhat cooler regions appear to have more than those grown in hotter climes, so favour the big reds of Bordeaux, Napa, Western Australia and Hawkes Bay over those from the Languedoc, Barossa, Puglia and Sicily.

Does red wine include any other healthy compounds?

Yes, oligomeric procyanidins to be precise. Aside from being a mouthful, these OPCs seem to inhibit the destruction of proteins such as collagen (the main structural component of connective tissue), and crucially, depress the formation of blood fat. OPCs have been linked with reducing vascular conditions and heart disorders, mitigating the negative effects of high cholesterol. These compounds are found in skins and seeds, and it has been proposed that wines with extended maceration (skin contact) times, and on-the-skins fermentations are higher in OPCs than those that don’t. Typically, wines from southern France exhibit many of these winemaking traits, with those from Cahors, Madiran and the Southern Rhone displaying particularly high levels. So, drink your Bordeaux for your antioxidants, and top up your OPCs straight after with a glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Is red wine always better for you than white wine?

On the whole, this seems to be the case. But fear not, chuggers of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, for what could be more obviously health conscious than calorie content? Remarkably, wine is an alcoholic beverage, and therefore really does contain a rather large number of calories. Generally however, white wines tend to be lower in alcohol than red wines, for a range of stylistic reasons. Naturally, dry wines contain less residual sugar, and therefore less calories, than off-dry or sweet wines, so your average 175 ml glass of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough (or even better, bone dry, under-ripe English still) will contain approximately 130-160 calories. The same size glass of, say, Aussie Shiraz, will set you back in the range of 160-190. Watch out for Champagne; unless it says Brut nature on the label, the dosage added after secondary fermentation will contain quite a lot of sugar.

Anything else I should know about?

Do you have bedbugs? Well, research carried out by the University of Nebraska indicates that bedbugs have an overwhelming preference for feeding on non-alcoholic blood. Reducing your exposure to blood-sucking mites is unequivocally good for your health. Don’t change your sheets, just get smashed.

Health is a strange thing to quantify. Is it the accumulation of ticks against your vital signs – blood-sugar, blood pressure, heart rate, BMI – or does it include something else, something more holistic? Philosophy is a dangerous playground here, especially when wine is involved, but perhaps the French Paradox is in fact less about heart disease, and more about a lifestyle. Sure, as we’ve seen, wine contains some good things, but the jury’s out on just how good these things actually are. Perhaps wine’s greatest health boon is not so cold and chemical, but on the effect it has on our happiness. Drinking wine is a social thing, it brings people together and unites a wholesome meal. It’s a lifter of spirits and a well-earned reward. And as for the French? Well, if I had an unfinished bottle of yesterday’s Lafite left to drink, I’d live an extra day, wouldn’t you?

Christian Lowe