Many Western New Yorkers might not know it, but some of the healthiest wine grapes in the world have been plucked from nearby vineyards in recent weeks. • We have Europe and our weather to thank. • Grape skins from red European vinifera grapes contain what is believed to be the highest concentrations of a heart-healthy antioxidant called resveratrol than any other kinds, and these varieties have been planted in abundance during the last few decades in vineyards across upstate New York and southern Ontario. Think pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, among others.
“Grapes will produce more resveratrol in colder climates and colder years, when they’re under more stress,” said Kurt Guba, cellar master and sommelier for Freedom Run Winery in the Niagara County town of Cambria.
The health benefits of red wine are not completely understood, but a series of studies across the world in recent years contain good news, according to Circulation, an American Heart Association journal. Moderate consumption of red wine is believed to increase “good” (HDL) cholesterol and reduce “bad” (LDL) cholesterol; decrease the risk of inflammation and blood clotting; and enhance antioxidant activity in the body.
Those effects lower the risk of heart attack, stroke and related diseases, said Dr. Robert Gatewood, 66, a Williamsville cardiologist who enjoys a glass or two of wine most evenings.
Robin Ross, co-owner of Arrowhead Spring Vineyards, a neighbor to Freedom Run, said it’s not unusual for a customer to come into her tasting room with this question: “My doctor said that I should start drinking a healthy dry red wine. What do you recommend?”
Two doctors, a food scientist and several regional wine experts helped explain the power of red wine.
1. The combination: Alcohol can be credited with many of the benefits of red wine, but polyphenolic compounds such as flavonoids and resveratrol may give it an extra boost, said Rui Hai Lui, a professor of food science at Cornell University.
There’s also the matter of the way it’s made. Red and white grapes come into the winery the same way but then go through very different processes, Guba said. The whites get crushed out of their skins and then fermented; the reds are crushed and fermented with their skins.
“Most wine juice is actually clear,” Guba said. “We expect white wines are going to be delicate, astringent and, well, white. We don’t want them to be brassy in color,” so the skin is removed. The red grape skins, where most of the antioxidants are contained, stick around far longer in the winemaking process.
“Those compounds have health benefits,” said Lui, “but you also need to consider the effect of alcohol.”
2. Alcohol the good: Wine forces us to slow down, and that can be helpful, particularly in social situations.
“A big part is the relaxation that comes from consuming a depressant,” Guba said. “That’s something that can’t be overlooked.”
“Those who drink alcohol at dinner,” said Gatewood, “have a tendency to sit down and have a nice, relaxing dinner. That’s actually better. When you’re rushing around and eating all of your meals in front of the TV, you tend not to pay as much attention to what you’re eating and tend to overeat. I think there’s a lot to be said for taking time out at the dinner table, relaxing, socializing, talking.”
3. Alcohol the bad: When Dr. Zorba Paster, the Refresh columnist and family doctor from Madison, Wisc., visited Western New York last month to talk at a health conference, a tip he shared for a longer life was to drink seven to 14 glasses of red wine per week – but not all of them on Saturday night.
The tip got big laughs, but the premise is no joke. Doctors and scientists can live with the idea of recommending one 5-ounce glass of wine daily for women and two for men – Gatewood said two for women and three for men is even sometimes acceptable – but beyond that, bad things can happen, including alcohol addiction.
“The positive effects of moderate alcohol consumption are negated with heavier usage,” the cardiologist said. “In addition to an increase in cardiovascular disease with heavy alcohol use, there is also an added risk of heart arrhythmias, as well as liver disease, cancer and accidental death.”
4. Sugar: Wine drinkers should also consider sugar and the way wine is produced. European vinifera grapes tend to have lower residual sugar levels than North American grapes, such as Concord, Niagara and Catawba. The native grapes can sometimes be harder to work with and need extra sugar to help the fermentation process.
Bill Mahoney, wine manager at Premier Wine & Spirits on Transit Road in Amherst, said that as long as the wine is fermented dry – including white wines – you generally need not worry about refined or processed sugar. That doesn’t always hold true, however, when it comes to “mass-produced commercial wines” in which sugar is added to appeal to sweet-toothed Americans. That practice adds calories, which can pile on weight.
5. The final analysis: Gatewood stressed that red wine is but one tool to preserve better health, and only when used wisely. He said not smoking, a Mediterranean diet – which is based on healthy fats and plenty of fish, fruits and vegetables – portion control, a strong support system, and staying active in mind and body also should figure into the mix.
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