Thursday, 19 July 2012

Red wine

“It is better to hide ignorance, but it is hard to do this when we relax with wine.”
Heraclitus, 540-480 B.C.
Red wine has been an essential part of our culture for thousands of years. The Roman military decided that it was so essential that they were motivated to plant vineyards in Scotland during the ‘Roman warm period’.
Many religions have drinking red wine as an essential part of their ceremonies. For connoisseurs drinking red wine is a religion in itself, and it has its own language and protocols. The Australian Wine Review website says this about one wine:
“Phillip Shaw 'The Idiot' Shiraz 2009 (Orange, NSW)
3 trophies, 1 gold
Meaty, spicy and quite dense nose, with a suggestion of Viognier in there too. Quite stemmy even. Good richness to the palate really, though the herbal finish on the palate is a little wobbly. Still, it's a drinkable wine. 17/90 “
There are very many red wine varieties produced around the world and for a good description of wines produced in Australia, click on here, and maybe even buy a bottle. The French have become very possessive of their regional branding and have enforced laws requiring that only wines from a branded region can be named with the brand, for instance ‘Champagne’. This ruling has required a few Australian producers to be innovative with their wine branding even though the name of the grape stays the same.

The majority of red wine is purchased as a carefully chosen accompaniment to a meal, a pleasantly calming drink after stress, or a social occasion drink. The idea that red wine is good for you came from the observation that French people suffer a relatively low incidence of heart disease even though they consume large quantities of saturated fats. The effect of the fat is said to be mitigated by the large quantities of red wine that they drink. Surrounding countries with similar red wine consumption have normal incidences of heart disease. Serge Renaud from Bordeaux University calls this the ‘French paradox’.

Vintners are more concerned about the taste and nose of their red wine rather than its medicinal properties and spend a lot of time and energy attempting to produce a wine that will get gold medal awards. The taste and quality of the wine in a particular region or soil location is determined by the weather and can produce very good or mediocre vintage wine. Many people earn a good living just by tasting and writing about wine. Bulk producers of wine usually blend a number of wines in large stainless steel vats to produce a consistent taste and colour for their brand. Medicinal wine is produced by some monasteries and usually contains herbs and spices.

Red wine contains alcohol and traces of a number of vitamins and minerals but is high in flavonoids or anti-oxidants. The most active anti-oxidants in wine are resveratrol, quercetin, and the catechins. The taste, nose and colour are determined by a number of different phenolic compounds (anthocyanidins, tannins, etc) and on the presence of acids in the wine. Extra tannin is sometimes introduced by the use of graded wooden casks made of oak. Quality red wine is cellared for a period of time to allow the wine compounds to blend with each other to produce a mellower, finer taste and nose. Some fortified red wines may be cellared for twelve years or more.

There have been attempts to synthesise the good properties of red wine especially in the ant-aging area or if you like ‘the fountain of youth’, which if tapped is worth billions of dollars. Resveratrol is thought to be one of these wonder drugs. GlaxoSmithKline payed hundreds of millions of dollars for Sirtris pharmaceuticals in 2008 in the hope of tapping this fountain, but have been sadly disappointed thus far.

It is not unusual to see a press release one day saying how good red wine is for you, and a few months later to see a press release saying quite the opposite. In universities the mantra is publish or perish, but the standard of research around the world varies from precise to quite sloppy and downright fraudulent. Dipak K. Das was found guilty on 11 January 2012 of 145 counts of fabrication or falsification of data with respect to research on resveratrol. He is a prolific publisher and has been quoted by more than 300 papers and journals. Other researchers say that they are not worried about being tarred with the same brush.

As a passing comment, one innovation that I applaud is the use of screw caps for wine bottles. Screw caps prevent oxidation and cork taint, and are easier to open, close and store if just a glass of wine is poured. Cork snobs should come down off their high horse and acknowledge that even champagne is aged under crown caps to avoid spoilage. One other advantage is that the bottle can be stored standing up.

The French generally cook with wine and drink red wine with their food; this holistic approach is possibly the best way to get the full benefits of the wine and the food. If you are taking wine as a relaxing drink it is recommended that to get the most benefit you sip the wine slowly and under no circumstances gulp the wine.

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