I’ve not always been picky about what alcohol I drank. Like a character from the ‘Road to Oxiana’, I was often more interested in the sin than the taste.

But recently I’ve been working more and more on my health, pondering at times if I’d have to give up alcohol as I aged, as a doctor friend had advised, and having heard the talk of red wine being good for me (or at least cancelling out the harmful affects of alcohol thanks to the enzymes in it’s red skin) through my interest in the Mediterranean Diet and the Blue Zones project, I investigated further. 

This was not purely a science based inquiry. I think any sensible look into health has to take note of anecdotal evidence also, to look into what happens in real life to real people, rather than just at how rats behave in laboratories, or how people are said to behave in experiments financed by interested business parties. Of course, there are some well meaning scientists and doctors around. There are also the opposite, though, and since both types have letters after their names, it pays to be careful.

So, why might red wine be good for us? Here’s a direct quote from the mayo clinic website that helps to explain the matter.

“The alcohol and certain substances in red wine called antioxidants may help prevent coronary artery disease, the condition that leads to heart attacks. Any links between red wine and fewer heart attacks aren’t completely understood. But part of the benefit might be that antioxidants in red wine may increase levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) and protect against cholesterol buildup.

Antioxidants in red wine called polyphenols may help protect the lining of blood vessels in your heart. A polyphenol called resveratrol is one substance in red wine that’s gotten attention for its health benefits.

Resveratrol might help prevent damage to blood vessels, reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) and prevent blood clots.

The resveratrol in red wine comes from the skin of grapes used to make wine. Because red wine is fermented with grape skins longer than white wine, red wine contains more resveratrol.

Alcohol itself may have some protective effects when consumed in moderation. There’s still no clear evidence that beer, white wine or liquor aren’t any better than red wine for heart health.

Various studies have shown that moderate amounts of all types of alcohol benefit your heart, not just alcohol found in red wine. It’s thought that alcohol:

  • Raises HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol)
  • Reduces the formation of blood clots
  • Helps prevent artery damage caused by high levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol)
  • May improve the function of the layer of cells that line your blood vessels

The potential heart-healthy benefits of red wine and other alcoholic drinks look promising. Those who drink moderate amounts of alcohol, including red wine, seem to have a lower risk of heart disease.

However, it’s important to understand that studies comparing moderate drinkers to nondrinkers might overestimate the benefits of moderate drinking because nondrinkers might already have health problems.” (to see the full text – https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/red-wine/art-20048281)

So that’s a little up and down, saying that red wine could be better for us than other alcohol, but that alcohol itself might be just as good for us, although there’s no clear evidence of this, although those who drink red wine seem to have a lower risk of heart disease. Although, none of this might be true…! 

It reads like a typically confusing description of an impenetrable modern art painting by the critic Matthew Collings which, to be fair to Matthew, were probably only ever meant as spoken art pieces anyway, and not to be taken at face value. Unlike this scientific account of red wine which is supposed, I’m assuming, to achieve something other than perplex, amuse, or assure us that science can only help us so much in matters of health, at this time.

Is there any other scientific evidence to be taken into account? Yes, lots. But little of it is offering us any more solid ground. 

For example, a diet high is resveratrol is good for us from an anti inflammatory point of view, agree the researchers in a 2013 study at the University of Copenhagen, yet equally, that same diet high is resveratrol has been found to impair the cardiovascular benefits of exercise in older men. 

So I guess that study is concluding that we should at the moment choose between inflammatory diseases or poor cardio health, and drink accordingly. A tricky choice to make.

And whilst some evidence looks very promising from a wine drinkers perspective, such as this study – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6099584/ – in this case, as in so many others, if we read to the bottom we see that it’s funded by an organisation that stands to benefit from us drinking more wine. Which is a shame as I was reading each paragraph thinking, great, great, great, it’s all good, let’s drink a glass of red to celebrate! Until I got to the funding part, and I see that the reality is I’ve good reason not to trust anything I’ve just read in the previous paragraphs.

Because sadly we live in a world where much science is funded by interested parties in order to find results favourable to their industries, and some scientists have become experts in skewing data and intentionally concealing the bigger picture. It’s tricky to sort the wheat from the chaff, to know who to trust, so it pays for us to remember the old saying, ‘Consumer Beware’.

Here’s another report of a study from Cornell University in New York State that reads very convincingly in favour of red wine from New York State, but then ends by saying we have no idea which particular wines are actually better for us at any given time because the health benefit is all in the skin, and the skin changes according to the climatic conditions in any given year, even at the same vineyard. Sounds plausible, but it also sounds like the sort of thing you’d say if you wanted to confuse people so much that they just throw their hands in the air and give up hope and buy whatever wine you’re recommending them, which in this case is, as I’ve said, New York wines. Unsuprisingly, the study was funded by the local wine industry – https://news.cornell.edu/stories/1998/02/ny-red-wines-show-more-resveratrol

So since there’s a lot of confusing info and I could quote study after study without coming to any scientifically solid answers I’m going to jump straight in with my own conclusion, which is based on info gleaned from varied sources. Scientific papers yes, but also doctors, dieticians, podcasts, research done with regard to diets in varied countries where people seem to live long, healthy lives, and conversations with medically trained friends.

From a health point of view, it’s agreed almost unanimously that eating red grapes is great for us. But as for drinking red wine? The jury is out.

Some doctors do say drinking alcohol increases the risk of cancer. Doctors who wish to be more specific mention breast cancer, and quote the position of the World Health Organisation, which in 2014 stated that regarding breast cancer, no amount of alcohol is safe. 

Seemingly in contradiction to this, a Harvard Nurses’ Health Study found that whilst as little as 1 alcoholic drink a day may be associated with a small increase in breast cancer risk, drinking only red wine was not associated with breast cancer risk at all. This was because a compound in red wine appears to suppress an enzyme called estrogen synthase, which breast tumors can use to create estrogen to fuel their growth. So in effect it was surmised that the grapes in red wine may help cancel out some of the cancer causing effects of the alcohol. 

Although when you look at it from a mental health perspective, the view is less cloudy. If drinking a glass of red wine (1 glass is recommended for women, up to 2 for men, is the accepted wisdom) helps us unwind, de-stress, and connect with others, then you have to weigh that against any possible problems the alcohol may cause. Indeed, when it’s seen that a large number of the world’s centenarians live in regions where wine is commonly enjoyed as a daily pleasure, we have to consider the link between mental well being and a healthy, long life. And I’ve chosen to do just that.

So personally I’ve phased out my whiskey and beer drinking, and replaced it mainly with moderate intake of red wine, enjoyed in curated company (in plain language, I don’t drink with people I don’t very much care for). The odd gin and tonic gets through the net on a sunny day, but mostly I manage to stick to the game plan.

Here are my current ‘rules’ for red wine drinking.

1/ I go for dry reds over sweet reds. I’m trying to cut down on excess sugar, and empty calories, and sweeter drinks are worse for that than dry. Like many people I’m partial to sweet drinks but I’ve gotten over that in this case. When it came to wine it wasn’t a difficult desicion, because as I said at the start of this article, I’m here more for the buzz than the taste.

2/ I drink a bottle a week, no more. I open it on Friday, have a glass then, keep the bottle with the cork or cap in place, and have a glass each day until it runs out,  which is usually Sunday. Drunk like this, I don’t need to keep the bottle in the fridge, just a cool, dark place.

3/ I don’t swill the wine around in my mouth, or hold it there. There’s no reason to do so other than if you’re a wine expert wishing to pass some sort of opinion on the taste. Experiments have shown that holding alcohol in your mouth for even a few seconds can result in potentially carcinogenic levels of acetaldehyde. I smell the wine, look at it’s colour, get some pleasure from both of those things, but as soon as it passes my lips it’s swallowed. 

4/ In a pinch, any dry red will do for me. Given the choice, these are the grapes I go for, based on research regarding typical amounts of resveratrol in the skins. 

Pinot Noir – of the cheaper wines in North America, this is my standby (unless I’m at home, in which case, see the Garnacha note below). It also has less calories and sugar than most other reds.

Malbec is my second choice cheap wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is third. 

If I can spend a little more money, I go for Grenache, and then Tannat.

Grenache, which is called ‘Garnacha’ or ‘Alicante’ in Spain, and ‘Cannonau’ in Sardinia, has more than double the beneficial enzymes/health features of Pinot Noir. Key wines include those from Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Tannat is also known as Madiran, Harriague, Moustrou, and Bordeleza Beltza.

Sagrantino is another more pricey grape option and for resveratrol it’s even better than Grenache or Tannat. It’s mostly grown in Umbria, Italy, and key wines includes Sagrantino di Montefalco.

But here’s a tip, the wines from Spain are cheaper in my home area than those from France. This is probably due to trade treaties and tariffs. So whilst a bottle of Grenache will run me $17, a bottle of Garnacha – which is made from the same grape, only it’s grown in Spain, not France – will be around $10. Maybe the same prices will apply in your region too, in which case, if cost is an issue, I’d go for Garnacha over anything else, as it has a lot more resveratrol than any of the other cheaper wines.  

Cheers!