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South West France at the London International Wine Fair - Part II: the health benefits

Dr Roger Corder of the William Harvey Research Institute followed Anthony Rose's guide to the wines with a fascinating lecture on his research into the health benefits of certain wines from south-west France - the so-called French Paradox - as discussed in his book "The Red Wine Diet".

The French Paradox concerns the lower number of coronary deaths in south-west France despite the fatty diet (think duck: foie gras, duck breast etc). The relationship with wine consumption came to the fore in 1991 when Professors Serge Reynaud and R Curtis Ellison suggested the link on 60 Minutes, sparking a surge in red wine consumption which continues today. Dr Corder showed a graph illustrating the very low number of deaths in high consumption countries such as Italy and, especially, France compared with the very low consumption countries with Scotland and Finland topping the list (of course, this doesn't make those places unhealthy to live in, just the typical diet and, perhaps, other lifestyles of the people in those countries).

He had found that between 0.25-0.5 litres of red wine (at 11-12% ABV) each and every day reduced the risk of coronary illness (but asserted that consumption in excess of 600ml per day increased the risk of other illnesses). Furthermore, the Lyon Diet Heart Study had found that up to 0.5 litres per day reduced by 50% the risk of a further vascular event (eg. heart attack or stroke) in patients who had already had one such event.

Dr Corder expanded on the science behind all of this - I am no chemist and would probably get most of it wrong (indeed, I had understood it was all to do with resveratrol but Dr Corder said we would need to consume 1000 litres of wine per day before the benefits of this ingredient were appreciated) so I would encourage anyone interested to read Dr Corder's book (as I will now!)

That said, my understanding is that our bodies need high levels of active polythenols to keep the levels of the amino acid Endothelin-1 appropriately low (we need this but high levels are dangerous). Wine polythenols include flavanoids and non-flavanoids (this group includes resveratrol); it is the pro-cyanidins which are the active component. Pro-cyanidins are found mainly in the seeds and, importantly, are extracted only when the ABV exceeds 6% so grape juice won't do.

The question then arises: does red wine increase longevity? Heart disease is more common in the beer drinking regions of norther France; correspondingly it is less common in the wine drinking south where people tend to live longer. Interestingly in 1933, the average life expectancy of a wine drinker was 65 compared with only 59 for water drinkers. At the same time, 87% of centenegerians were wine drinkers.

South-West France has the highest percentage of men over the age of 75 in all of France with the Gers having twice the number over the age of 90 of any other region in France. I find that a stunning and compelling statistic.

These are the wines of Madiran and of Saint Mont and Cotes du Brulhois in particular although a tasting at the end of the session of a Saint Mont, Cahors and Fronton showed them increasing in total phenolics and procyanidins with the Fronton having just about the highest level of procyanidins of any wine Dr Corder had tested - a staggering 2.5 grams/litre).

Essentially, it seems that any wine with procyanidins in excess of 1 gram/litre are extremely beneficial. Around 10% of red wines come into this category including 86% of all wines from Madiran and other wines such as Cahors are extremely good in this respect too. Don't expect to find this in the wines of Australia, for example, which hover around 0.25 g/l.

However, alcohol volumes are relevant too as the higher the ABV, the lower the procyanidins - 375ml of wine at 11-12% is good but more than 250ml of wine at 15% is definitely bad, it seems.

In conclusion then, it seems that a couple of glasses or so of any of the tannic brutes of South-West France will do us some good. When I asked Dr Corder more about this he said that any tannic red would be beneficial but that some varieties (he named Cabernet Franc as an example) would become less good with bottle aging as procyanidin levels decreased over time. He had not found this negative effect of aging in the Tannats, Malbecs and Negrettes of the South-West so we can continue to enjoy old-style and modern wines from this wonderful part of France, all being well until we have reached our centuries!


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