Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wine Science

Just in time for the holidays, the newspapers seem to be very interested in the health effects of alcohol. The idea that red wine is good for you is nothing new, from the resveratrol to make you live longer (although you'd need to drink vats of wine a day to see a real effect), to the polyphenols that keep your heart strong, red wine seems almost like a miracle food. But what about the whites and sparklings?

Well, white wine doesn't seem to have the same qualities, though that has been debated. But according to the British press, champagne, and its cousins prosecco and cava, may actually be good for your heart. It's because these wines are made from black grapes (pinot noir, and pinot muenier), and according to Dr. Jeremy Spencer from Reading University, the qualities of the grapes do make it through into the finished product. Those qualities? Those would be the polyphenols. Polyphenols are small molecules that block the removal of nitric oxide from the blood stream, and nitric oxide is what keeps the blood vessels nicely dilated, allowing blood to flow through easily, reducing heart strain, and lowering blood pressure. The really good news in this is that unless you're drinking blanc de blanc (champagne made exclusively from chardonnay grapes) any sparkling wine made from a red grape will work (chocolate does too if that's your preference).

And talking of wine, according to the Telegraph, the lighting in a room will change how you perceive a wine. In a test using single bottles of reisling and subtly changing light colours, a group of German researchers found some remarkable results. First, if you use red lighting, then people will perceive a wine as sweeter than under other kinds of lights. And then, red of blue lighting will both increase the perceived price of a bottle of wine. why this would be is still unclear, but the effect seems to be real.

This shouldn't be a big surprise. For almost a decade now there have been studies showing how much our perception of wine is influenced by characteristics other than the taste of the wine itself. In fact, in blind tastings, even sommeliers have been known to be fooled by reds and whites, since the line for taste is frequently blurred. And time and time again, scientists have shown that the bottle a wine is poured from will influence how it gets described.

Even history can play a part, as a recent study showed. This looked at the genes of various varieties, and found that chardonnay (which, particularly in Europe, tends to get very little respect), was the child of gouais, a grape that was banned in parts of Europe for being a 'peasant's grape.' The fact chardonnay is a close cousin of gamay noir, shows how arbitrary some of these decisions can be.

When it comes right down to it, the key to wine is finding something you enjoy. And if it happens to be a red wine, or a champagne, then you're getting a health benefit at the same time!

Happy Holidays!

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