One would assume that cardiologist Dr Mahen Varma is passionate about wine because it’s good for the heart, but GILES MACDONOGH discovers his taste runs to more than just good ordinary claret.
Doctor MAHEN VARMA is the outgoing President of the Irish Cardiac Society and a cardiologist who has no reluctance when it comes to saying that wine is good for the heart.
Mahen Varma is of Indian stock, his grandparents having emigrated from India to South Africa in the middle of the 19th century. He was born in Durban 62 years ago and came to London in his early teens, where he attended grammar school. He qualified as a doctor at the Royal College of Surgeons and did his PhD at Trinity College, both in Dublin.
His background is anything but typical for a wine lover. It was not that his family didn’t drink wine – they didn’t drink at all. Every now and then he saw his father take a brandy ‘for medicinal reasons’, but Hindu culture, while it does not condemn alcohol, gives it no credence.
Mahen Varma has changed that. He is a believer, but it took a while. He drank his first glass of wine at the age of 23. ‘It was a really sweet glass of Sauternes.’ He was still too poor to think of such things. It was only three or four years later that he bought a house in Dublin and thought it might be a nice idea to have a cellar. He bought six bottles: three red and three white. One was a 1967 Barolo. He still recalls the wine being ‘absolutely magnificent’. The taste for Barolo has stuck.
Mahen Varma moved to Northern Ireland and to a wife who sympathised with his growing love of wine. Just for fun he did the WSET diploma in Belfast and he was later active in running the course.
Despite a deep knowledge and love of the subject, he has no professional involvement with wine, but he has regular meetings with other collectors north and south of the border, and is sometimes amazed by what he sees. He told me of a cellar he had visited recently in the south. The millionaire collector prided himself on his first growth clarets. ‘There were good and bad vintages in significant quantities, including a substantial amount of Pétrus. There were no other classic wines from anywhere else; that means no Burgundy, Rhône, no white wine of note, no Champagne. It was folly!’
He has no time for wine snobs. He characterises his own tastes as catholic. ‘There is always Champagne, fino sherry and German Riesling from top producers in the fridge.’ His house in Enniskillen is founded on wine purchased from sources as diverse as the Wine Society, Lay & Wheeler, Adnams, Corney & Barrow, the Pat Blake Group in Enniskillen and Direct Wine Shipments.
Varma is a self-confessed claret drinker with vintages going back from 2000 to 1983. Favourite estates include Léoville Barton and Lynch Bages.
His cellar also contains a lot of Champagne – Dom Pérignon for special occasions, Canard Duchêne on a normal day – and German Riesling, of which Egon Müller is his favourite. He likes Alsace and white Burgundy; Barolo (from Pio Cesare and Michele Chiarlo) and Chianti, and the wines of Quintarelli in the Veneto. From Burgundy, he collects wines from the Domaines Dujac and de Vogüé; in the Rhône, he has a special fondness for the wines of the Ventoux; plus old sherry, vintage port. The cellar also contains stacks of Pesquera and Torres Black Label.
He is not too much of a New World fan, but admits to four or five cases of Ridge Zinfandel and about 10 cases of Grange: ‘a gift from a patient whose life I saved’.
Saving lives brings us to the question of wine and the heart. Wine contains resveratol and quercetin, explains Varma, as well as a host of other beneficial compounds such as polyphenols and flavanoids… they lower bad cholesterol (good cholesterol prevents blood vessels, especially the coronary arteries, from furring up), which reduces the chance of a heart attack. They also make the blood less sticky, with a similar effect.
Wine also lowers the chances of strokes, and wine’s antioxidant nature will mop up and destroy free radicals, which left alone will damage blood vessels. These substances have a measurable effect on the growth of cancer cells as they inhibit an enzyme that increases their growth.
‘In a recent study in France,’ says Varma, ‘it was shown that wine-drinking patients aged over 65 had a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia compared with those who did not drink wine. All wine will do this for you, but red wine is more effective than white.’
Varma stresses, however, that he is not giving the green light to heavy topers: ‘drinking in moderation is very beneficial, but in excess it becomes very detrimental’. He also wags his finger at women who seek to drink their men under the table – ‘their hormonal and genetic structure is not the same’.
Having reached the top of his professional tree, Varma can relax a little. Once a year he visits his Irish friend Gay McGuinness, the proprietor of Domaine des Anges in Provence. The wines are tried and tasted – in moderation, naturally.
Giles MacDonogh is a freelance wine writer.