The man who told us red wine is healthy tells Brian St Pierre how real ale, Switzerland and an Aussie winemaker sparked his personal interest
After a dinner party recently, our hosts, both doctors, surprised us: instead of a cheeseboard or dessert, they brought out plates of walnuts, chunks of dark chocolate and plump, sweet Agen prunes. The wine was d’Arenberg’s The High Trellis Cabernet Sauvignon
from McLaren Vale, South Australia. A superb end to our meal. When I said they must have been influenced by Roger Corder’s book on healthy eating and drinking, The Wine Diet,
they looked blank – never heard of him.
It was just ‘something we know’.
Well no, but not because Corder’s not trying. He is professor of experimental therapeutics at London’s William Harvey Research Institute, and has spent more than two decades finding ways to save us from ourselves. Since much of his research concludes that wine is good for you, he admits that gathering and analysing the facts has provided a great deal of pleasure. ‘The wines I most enjoy drinking are tannic, structured reds, which are also the ones with the most healthful properties, that I recommend. I wonder if I don’t have a conflict of interest,’ he laughs.
He grew up on a farm in Somerset and only encountered wine in college (‘Mostly I drank real ale. I didn’t like the sort of cheap wine I could afford.’). After he earned his PhD in pharmacology he went to work in Switzerland. ‘Swiss supermarkets were full of good wine, which was a revelation, and many wineries are within a day’s drive of Geneva; my wife and I made the most of that for five years.
‘Swiss wines made me realise I had to look further afield. Burgundy was an obvious choice, but I soon found I preferred Cabernet Sauvignon to Pinot Noir. Its tannic structure appealed – maybe my palate had been prepared by the robust real ale. I love Gewürztraminer and some white Burgundies, but not Chardonnay from elsewhere, which is too often obviously oaky.’ Back in England in the early 1990s, Australian reds best suited his palate and purse. He began going to tastings, and met John Duval, then winemaker at Penfolds; their chat triggered his scientist’s curiosity, which set off a chain reaction of research and discovery, happily interweaving aesthetics and science.
He began by analysing census data in France, and found that in areas where heart disease was lower, people were also living longer, and that 87% of French people who’d lived to be 100 were wine drinkers. The most telling data came from Gascony, where there were twice as many 90-year-old men and 30% more over-75s than the national average. The wine of choice? Tannic, dark, muscular Madiran, made from Tannat, often slightly restrained by Cabernets Franc or Sauvignon. The magic bullet? Procyanidins and polyphenols, beneficial antioxidant compounds, also found in – you guessed it – fruits like prunes, nuts (especially walnuts) and cocoa or dark chocolate.
But there are caveats. Big, for instance, isn’t better: ‘This hang-time trend is one of winemaking’s biggest evils,’ he says. ‘You get elevated sugar and thus alcohol, but the tannins in those overripe grapes are oxidised. They aren’t healthy. The tannins from oak don’t compensate – they’re worthless from a health point of view. Fining and filtering can also detract. A lot of stabilised mass-market wines, aren’t the most healthful, either.’ The good news is that price need not matter – style does. He’d rather see the words ‘unfiltered’ and ‘unfined’ on a back label than ‘biodynamic’ or references to ‘fruit,’ he notes wryly.
Mostly, though, he remains upbeat. Comptoir Gascon, with its wide range of the Madirans he loves, is near his office, and he’s fond of Ribera del Duero. A study he did on Sardinia’s Cannonau wines led him up the Italian peninsula to Campania’s Aglianico, then to Umbria and Sagrantino di Montefalco. ‘I’m trying to work out a method for doing chemical analysis while I’m on the road,’ he says with a smile. ‘That way I could get some work done while wine-touring – before lunch.’
Written by Brian St Pierre