Wine for Life

Some red wines increase lifespan. Resveratrol is only one of several antioxidants known to give character to red wine, but seems to have a special ability to protect cell membranes and to ward off cancer. It now appears to affect a genetic switch that controls how fast we age as well.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published September 2, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Please pass the pinot noir. I now think of red wine as health food.

Scientists have long known of the French Paradox, the ability of the French to linger at the café, consume considerable amounts of fat-laden cheese and live to tell the tale. And for just as long they have suspected that wine has something to do with it, red wine in particular.

Over the past decade, attention has focused on naturally occurring compounds in red grapes and other fruits and vegetables that function as potent antioxidants. So far, scientists have identified around 6,000 antioxidants. As a general rule, antioxidants are found in the pigments of fruits and veggies, so the more colorful the food, the richer it is in antioxidants.

What makes antioxidants so interesting is their ability to prevent damage to body cells and prevent aging in many organ systems throughout the body, and particularly the brain and heart.

Antioxidants do their work in the body by disarming cell-damaging free radicals, wildly reactive rogue molecules of oxygen that damage the membrane covering of all cells and the DNA that contains a cell's basic operating instructions. Free radicals are implicated in heart disease because they oxidize the "bad" cholesterol, leading to hardened arteries.

By damaging the genetic machinery of cells, free radicals also are thought to contribute to the development of cancer and a number of degenerative conditions including Parkinson's disease. Free radicals enter our bodies through pollution, fried foods and the normal metabolic processes of the body.

Of the 6,000 antioxidants so far identified, 4,000 belong to a class of substances known as polyphenols. Specific and potent polyphenols have been found in apples, green tea, pomegranates and cocoa beans.

But in some ways the best of them all may be the polyphenol found in the skin of red grapes, resveratrol. Resveratrol is only one of several antioxidants known to give character to red wine, but it may have special properties. It seems to have a special ability to protect cell membranes and to ward off cancer. According to information released today, it now appears to affect a genetic switch that controls how fast we age.

Resveratrol is present in eucalyptus, spruce and lily plants and in foods such as mulberries and peanuts. But its most abundant natural sources is the red grape. It occurs in the vines, roots, seeds and stalks of grapes, but its highest concentration is in the skin.

It's from the skin of the grape that wine gets its color. The resveratrol content of wine varies considerably, and it's related to the length of time grape skins are present during the fermentation process. The concentration is significantly higher in red wine than in white, because the skins are removed early during white-wine production.

Here's the part I find most interesting. it turns out that resveratrol is an integral part of a plant's defense system against disease and drought. It's produced in response to adversity, to invaders such as fungus, which is more common in cooler climates.

As a result, grapes grown in cooler climates have the highest concentrations of resveratrol. Plants that have had to endure harsh environmental conditions like drought seem to have more resveratrol than those coddled in balmy climes.

Not long ago, Cornell University researchers found that wines from New York state had the highest resveratrol concentration compared with wines from other regions. Pinot noir outdid cabernet and merlot, although it should be pretty obvious that the resveratrol content of any wine will vary from vintage to vintage and varietal to varietal depending on the weather and local growing conditions.

Today's news also brought the suggestion that the traditional growing regions for fine wines may not be the regions producing the most salubrious wines. Researchers found that red wines from regions with harsh growing conditions—such as Spain, Chile, Argentina and Australia—contain more resveratrol than wines produced where grapes are not highly stressed or dehydrated.

Perhaps there's something of a general principle at work here. It takes a certain amount of difficulty to bring out the best in the fruit of the vine. The same is probably true for people.