Whether wine is a nourishing drink, a medicine or a poison is a matter of dosage, stated Paracelsus, one of a number of physicians past and present who've proposed a drop of wine can do you good. He may have shared this wisdom some 500-odd years ago, but it's still a relevant observation today at a time when we're bombarded by studies suggesting wine is an elixir on one hand, and a disease-bringing bogeyman on the other.
Wine has long been used as a medication, but recent decades have seen scientific studies present evidence that regular moderate wine consumption can be good for your health: from significantly reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease to protecting against the likes of dementia, diabetes and some forms of cancer.
Wine's potentially health-giving properties gained international coverage in the 90s through reporting on the "French paradox", the phenomenon whereby the French, who feast on a diet fairly high in saturated fats, have a relatively low incidence of heart disease. This was attributed to their taste for vin rouge, whose benefits of are likely to lie in the antioxidant polyphenolic compounds, such as procyanidins and resveratrol found in the skins of grapes.
However, wine has been linked to breast cancer and for those of us who taste a lot of it, throat cancer. Most of the other health issues - such as liver and brain damage, strokes and obesity - arise, as for all alcoholic drinks, from excessive consumption.
All this information is enough to raise one's blood pressure, so I made an appointment with some the doctors involved in our wine industry for a diagnosis.
"I've seen little strong evidence linking moderate wine consumption and poor health," says Forrest Estate's Dr John Forrest. "By moderate I'm talking 1-2 glasses daily, depending on sex, size and age, while the early trimester of pregnancy does appear to be a time when alcohol is better restricted as relatively low levels of alcohol may slow fetal development."
Forrest considers wine's social aspect could also be health-giving. "How often do you use wine as a means to relax, improve your mental state, rest or improve interaction with other people?" he asks. "It's my opinion that it's these beneficial social effects of moderate wine consumption that are at the heart of the French Paradox!"
Ostler Vineyard's Dr Jim Jerram is a medic who has experienced both the good and ills of alcohol when director of Student Health Services at Otago University and through his research with the Injury Prevention Unit, witnessing first hand the worrying changes in students' drinking.
"I saw the devastating results of the effect of these drinking patterns in male and particularly female students," he notes. "The modern binge drinking trends in young people seem to be epidemic across the globe with alcohol the number one abused drug by far in NZ and most of the world."
However, in his personal journey through wine Jerram said he learned that "wine was more than just an alcoholic drink" and something offering sensory enjoyment and reflection. When he set up his own vineyard, he opted to concentrate on high quality wine given his experiences in the health service.
"By setting the standards in our operation at the highest quality I felt I could justify alcohol production in that form," he explains. "Expensive, high-end wines are unlikely to be abused in the way that RTDs, spirits generally and beer are abused."
"As usual it comes back to the old adage of "all things in moderation" and a balanced diet and life style," concludes Jerram. "An Australian lifestyle guru I once heard speak said 'all things in moderation except vegetables, laughter, rice, fish and sex - and if you don't want the sex have more rice!"'
As the positive polyphenols are present in a grape's skin, wines which contain the most are largely reds as they're fermented with their skins unlike most whites. Varieties such as tannat, malbec and cabernet sauvignon have some of the thickest skins, boosting levels further.
Chateau Montauriol Tradition Fronton 2009 $24.90
According to Lifestyle Wines, whose focus is importing "the world's healthiest wines", this fruity negrette-dominant blend, with its bright berry fruit, hints of violet and dusting of tannins, was awarded a 5-star heart rating by Dr Roger Corder, author of The Wine Diet. (From lifestylewines.co.nz, New World Devonport, Kiwi Liquor.)
Cooper's Creek The Exile Gisborne Malbec 2010 $28
Its deep colour is evidence of this variety's thick skins, with this rich and ripe Gisborne expression with its plush spiced dark berry and damson fruits, smoke and touch of tannins, an impressive local example. (From Caro's, Kingsland Liquor Centre, Arawa Fine Wines, The Barrow, Point Wines, selected Liquorlands.)
GREAT WITH ROAST
Selaks Winemaker's Favourite Hawkes Bay Reserve Merlot Cabernet 2010 $21.99
Selaks is encouraging friends and family gather together over a roast and wine to celebrate New Zealand Roast Day on Sunday 5 August. This mellow, savoury blend would be a great match, with the cabernet enhancing its healthful properties as well. (From New World, Pak n Save, Countdown, Four Square, Super Liquor, Liquorland, selected independents.)