Friday, January 20, 2006

Is oak aged Pinot the healthiest wine?

Thanks to the fine people at Mars chocolate for funding the research over the past decade-and-a-half into possible health benefits of cocoa. But why bother with that on this blog - and what's it got to do with Pinot Noir?

Simple...okay, not really, but here it goes anyway...
The study which produced the results also found a positive response to a single class of compounds – the ellagitannins (specifically (-)epicatechin) – which are also found in wine. This one class of compounds seems to be responsible for the relaxing of the blood vessels, and increases the rate of blood flow (ergo oxygenation) to the body, and this effect may be one of the most important in recognizing by what method wine provides health benefits as well.

Ellagitannins and catechins are found in the seeds and skins of red wine grapes, as well as in the final wine. Levels are related to the variety of grape, and winemaking techniques applied. The ellagitannins are part of the larger classification of polyphenols (of which much noise has been generated recently) that also include the color compounds (proanthocyanidins & prodelphinidins) which give red wine its red color. Add to this the fact that there are also ellagitannins extracted from the oak wood used in barrels, which is a known factor in the final amounts available, as well as the color stabilization of the wine.

So which wine should have the highest concentrations of these compounds? Certainly an inky tannic Cab, or maybe an opaque thick Syrah, but certainly something with a lot of color intensity to it right? Wrong.

Pinot Noir has the highest levels, which are somewhere around 2x the levels found in Cab or Merlot. But that can’t be right – Pinot doesn’t have the intense color these other varietals have…what’s going on?

Well Pinot may not have as much color, but the ellagitannins are utilized in the fruit to form some of those very same color compounds by reacting with the proanthocyanidins & prodelphinidins to make even larger compounds. Maybe the reason is because Pinot doesn’t develop as much color, so that it then has more ellagitannins available to start with, which carries over to the finished wine. Pinot is also different in that the sources of ellagitannins in most varietals are from both the skins and the seeds, whereas in Pinot there’s very little contribution from the skins, and the vast majority is from the seeds.

The winemaking inputs which are most important to this equation are (a) fermentation temperature (higher temps extract more ellagitannins – which may be lowered by the practice of “cold soaking” the must in a refrigerated tank to extract water soluble aromas before the start of alcoholic fermentation), (b) the practice some winemakers have of trying to “burp out” the seeds from the bottom valves of red fermentation tanks to reduce the seed tannins in the finished wine (this would reduce the contact with the seeds and thereby reduce the levels of ellagitannins), and (c) the reduction of skin contact time when fermenting as the market moves away from practices such as extended maceration – or in big harvests when fermentation tanks need to be emptied and used on a faster rotation than they would during a relatively slow or lighter harvest.
Another possible lessening of the amounts available might be in the drive towards “super-ripeness”, which I’m not sure if that would have any effect or not on the availability, though I’m going to speculate that it might reduce it slightly.

Now most of this hinges on the data produced in the cocoa study, and some may dismiss the findings of the study because Mars has an obvious financial gain from positive news regarding cocoa (if it increases their sales).

But I believe it…partly because I want to justify my occasional chocolate bar or tollhouse cookie, but also because I feel better after I eat some chocolate (I know, I know…hardly anything scientific in that – especially with it masked by the sugar that’s usually involved, which is undoubtedly part of that rush).

In light of all this info, and a positive correlation to ellagitannins and the health benefits, I think this is the question that begs to be asked with respect to ellagitannins: “Is oak aged Pinot Noir the healthiest wine ?”

[‘Direct evidence’ that cocoa benefits heart health]
[Anticancer compounds in wine]
[Anti-tumor compounds from oak-ageing wine]


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