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Red Wine: It Does a Body Good

by Courtney Cochran

Ever since news of the French Paradox - the phenomenon of a relatively low incidence of heart disease in France in spite of a high level of wine and saturated fat consumption - broke some twenty years ago, wine consumption has been on the rise. But the exact manner in which wine contributes to greater life expectancy and decreased risk of heart disease wasn't full understood until just recently, when London-based wine lover and cardiovascular expert Roger Corder spelled it out in his new book, The Red Wine Diet (Penguin).

A more fitting title for Corder's book might very well have been Red Wine: A Glass a Day Keeps Bad LDL Cholesterol at Bay. And while commercial appeal would have certainly suffered under this new moniker, the gist of Corder's findings would at least have been marvelously apparent.

Which brings me to the only drawback to The Red Wine Diet:  It's sometimes shrouded in so much science-speak as to confuse the casual wine enthusiast who may pick up a copy for what he or she hopes will be some rather straightforward reading.  Still, Corder's findings are a revelation for anyone who has ever scratched his head and wondered, with amazement, just how a glass of something we love so much can do us so much good. 

Corder's Findings, In a Nutshell

Essentially, Corder's research attributes the heart-healthy benefits of wine to compounds called procyanidins that are found in the seeds and skins of grapes.  Because white wine is made from grape juice that's fermented independently of its seeds and skins, white wines have negligible amounts of procyanidins.  By the same logic, red wines – particularly those made from thick-skinned grapes that spend protracted periods of time macerating with their skins and seeds during fermentation – have the most.

Corder's research shows that procyanidins inhibit the oxidation of potentially deadly LDL cholesterol in our arteries.  When LDL cholesterol oxidizes, it hardens artery walls and increases the likelihood of blockages, which in turn contribute to the incidence of strokes, heart attacks and other manifestations of heart disease.  And, as you might expect, the author points out that procyanidins alone can't stop heart disease:  Eating a varied diet and leading an active lifestyle – in addition to consuming moderate amounts of red wine high in procyanidins – are critical to the success of the diet. 

Wines that Fit the Bill

And now, the good part: Once he details the ways in which procyanidins help our hearts, Corder goes on to describe the wines his research has shown to have the most of these benevolent compounds. I recommend buying his book to get the full scoop on the regions, grape varieties and other factors that cause wines to be rich in procyanidins, and also because it includes useful lists of specific, widely available wines that fit the bill. Here are a few highlights:

  • In tests, reds based on the inky Tannat grape from southwest France's Madiran region consistently contained more procyanidins than wines from any other region.
  • California Cabernet Sauvignon and old vine Zinfandel are also good sources for the heart-healthy goodies.
  • Italian reds made from Sangiovese, Aglianico and Nebbiolo tend to be procyanidin-rich.
  • Reds from Argentina – especially those made from Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes – are good bets, too.

To help you get started on your own red wine diet, I leave you with the following suggestions for heart-healthy reds. Here's to drinking your way to better health!

Author's Picks

Bonny Doon "Heart of Darkness" (Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc), AC Madiran, France $10 From California's maverick wino, Randall Graham, comes a muscular, deeply hued red with notes of smoke, dried cherry and a hint of beef jerky.

Ravenswood Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel, USA $20 Brambly raspberry, blackberry and vanilla notes harmonize in this full-bodied number from one of California's best names in Zinfandel.

Bodega Catena Zapata Cabernet Sauvignon Alta, Argentina $55 A classy, brooding Cab from one of Argentina's flagship wineries, this wine delivers layered notes of dark chocolate, espresso, baking spices and plum fruit.

Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, USA $100 This reliable, widely available Cabernet from Napa stalwart Robert Mondavi provides lots of ripe cassis and raspberry fruit alongside deeper notes of toast and tobacco.