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Red Wine Anti-oxidants

excerpt from Black Diamond magazine, 2006 1214262000

Roger Corder is a pharmacological researcher at Queen Mary University of London. His specialty is a class of compounds, often found in the skins of fruits, which are usually bunched together under the heading POLYPHENOLS (sometimes lumped together with an even larger group colloquially termed ANTI-OXIDANTS). But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Dr. Corder got his start, much like a benign, modern day Ponce de Leon, searching the globe for population groups where the men routinely lived to be at least 100 years old. You see, it is not tremendously uncommon for women to reach the century mark, but men are a different story. Dr. Corder figured he would focus on groups of men with extraordinary longevity, then study their diet with the hope of identifying specific chemical compounds shared in the cultures of these unusual groups.

Two groups stood out, in no small part because their lifestyles were so different from each other, but also because their access to what we would normally think of as modern health care was relatively minimal. One group was native to a particular mountainous region of Sardinia. Mind you, most of Sardinia is fairly mountainous, and all Sardinians live longer than average human beings. But this one group enjoyed even longer life expectancy than most Sardinians, and this particular group was distinguished by the remoteness of their villages and their subsequent lack of entanglement with 20th century conveniences. The other remarkable group were Indians living on the barely explored Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Without putting too fine a point on it ~ at first glance the two groups didn't seem to have much in common with each other in terms of culture and diet.

What Dr. Corder and his research associates determined was that both groups consumed very large quantities of certain polyphenols. The Sardinians got theirs in the form of locally produced red wines; the Nicaraguan Indians got theirs in the form of locally harvested and processed chocolate.


Before you begin dancing in the street though, let me explain in more detail what Roger Corder does. Numerous researchers over the last sixty years have demonstrated some sort of connection between certain foods and increased longevity. In fact there was an article published during the late 1940's in the New England Journal of Medicine by a very prominent research scientist from Harvard, in which he demonstrated that serum triglycerides (read cholesterol if you're a layman) could be reduced nearly 40% in a rat population put on a red wine regimen. That researcher's name was Timothy Leary. His subsequent notoriety from work on an ergot of rye (leading to LSD) soured somewhat the wine industry's enthusiasm for trumpeting his earlier findings on red wine and health, but the French Paradox (i.e. how can a nation eat foie gras, triple cream brie cheeses all day, and smoke like stacks, while remaining fashionably slim and living longer than Americans?) segment on the 60 Minutes television show in 1991 brought all that research back to mainstream attention.

During the 1980's and '90s several long-term studies (in particular Katsky at Kaiser in Oakland, and Ellison at Framingham in Massachusetts) showed a clear relationship between moderate red wine consumption and reduced heart disease. In the '90s the mechanism for this increased vascular health was beginning to be identified. It now appears that polyphenol compounds, leached out of the skins and seeds during fermentation of red wines, play a role in preventing fatty lipids from becoming embedded in the walls of the blood vessels ~ vessel walls which are made up of epithelial cells. One unique facet of Roger Corder's research is that he has developed a technique for measuring the degree of effect different polyphenols have on vascular wall epithelial cells. And he can do it in the lab, so he is able to measure many sources of these polyphenols quickly. This break-through research was first published in Nature magazine in 2002.

Here's the rub. Not all polyphenols (read anti-oxidants if that will help maintain your interest) do the job. Some are more effective at providing vascular protection than others, and some provide little or no protection. Heat is one of the culprits. Green tea, for instance, has a wives'-tale reputation for anti-oxidant benefits. But few Americans know green tea should be brewed at 175ºF or less. Boiling water (212ºF) not only makes green tea bitter, it severely reduces the vascular effectiveness of the polyphenols. Similarly, cranberries are a superb source of effective polyphenols, but cranberry sauce is not. Cranberry sauce is cooked. Same with raspberries versus raspberry jam.

The Nicaraguan Indians get their positive effect from chocolate because they are eating the cacao itself. If you want that effect, you should eat dark chocolate, say one with 70% cacao nibs (cf: Scharffenberger has one). Milk chocolate doesn't have much cacao. Milk chocolate is made from cocoa butter (the oil in the cacao), milk solids, and sugar. Blending these ingredients together adroitly to achieve a silky smooth texture is the secret (a technical innovation first achieved in Belgium and Switzerland) of very expensive chocolate, but that process also polymerizes the molecules that would have had the anti-oxidant effect if they were not polymerized. 'Polymerized' means the small molecules have been bonded together (in this case by an oxygen atom) into larger molecules. That is most likely how they lose their anti-oxidant potential.

It appears to Dr. Corder that something of the same nature is going on in red wines. The ones with the most effective polyphenols are rough, young wines. Those are the only red wines consumed by the Sardinian population with the extreme longevity. Other Sardinian populations live closer to cosmopolitan cities. They drink a more international selection of wines, as well as more wines aged longer in cask and bottle. They don't lose all the benefit, but they do get a somewhat reduced effect. Tannins and anthocyanin pigments (i.e. the phenols) in red wines polymerize (i.e. gradually oxidize to form larger molecules) over time in the barrel and in the bottle.

By the same token, Dr. Corder has observed that certain red wine styles have less epithelial cell effect than the rough, tannic, young reds of remote Sardinia. In particular the over-ripe, hang-on-the-vine-until-super-mature styles popular in Napa and Australia today (uber-consultant Michel Rolland deserves to get fingered here too) are prime examples of polymerized tannins. The marketplace rather fancies them because they are full-bodied, but soft in the mouth. Apparently "soft in the mouth" ain't doin' all it could for your vascular system. The same grippy, sweaters-on-your-teeth feel that harsh young red wines visit on the inside of your mouth (as those small, green tannins go after the proteins in your saliva) is apparently what's helping out in your blood stream.

Let me wind up with one further note of interest. This following point is a new field of study, and nothing conclusive has really been demonstrated to a scientific certainty as yet. Some people claim that high elevation vineyards experience a marked increase in UV (ultra-violet) light on the skins of the grapes. Preliminary studies seem to show that (just as you would if you lay out half dressed by the pool absorbing UV light) these grape skins get thicker and darker in color. Argentina has many high elevation vineyards. The most prominent and extensive wine operation in Argentina is owned by the Catena Zapata family. Laura Catena is an emergency room physician in San Francisco. She has initiated a study on the polyphenol content of grape skins grown at high elevation. Her father (Nicolas Catena) might prefer to keep that information proprietary, but Laura has a scientist's interest in the health aspects of the research and a natural inclination to fully disclose the results. In one experiment, comparing Argentine red wines to Australian red wines, Roger Corder found both higher polyphenol content and higher polyphenol effectiveness on epithelial cells in the Argentine wines. There could be many reasons for this data outcome, but if it spurs vigorous debate, we will all be the better for it.

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