Archive for November, 2018

One question I’m asked all the time is “is wine good for you?” The simple answer is “yes”, with obvious caveats attached.

Wine and Health – Some Historical Background

Wine and its benefits have over 450 mentions in the Bible. Earlier references go as far back as Ancient Egypt and the Sumerians. Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.) was one of its more interesting earlier advocates. He described it as “a thing marvelously suited to man if, in health as in sickness, it is administered in accordance with the individual constitution”. He recommended white wine as cure for edema, as well as claiming a beneficial effect on the stomach. Pliny in “Natural History” talks of the medicinal effects of the vine. “Wine in itself is a remedy ; it nourishes the blood of man”. He saw wine as an antidote to poison. This included snake bites and treating the after-effects of poisonous mushrooms. Cornelius Celsus documented Roman medicine in detail in the early first century AD, and recommended wine to complement diets drawn up to combat anaemia. The Roman physician Galen, over a century later, discovered more benefits. Wine appeared to be the most effective way of disinfecting the wounds of gladiators.

Now we can fast forward to the middle ages. Land-owning Burgundy monasteries such as Cluny and Citeaux produced wine to celebrate Mass. Vinestock symbolized resurrection through renewing its greenery each year. The wine itself equated to the blood of Christ. Inspired, they went on to develop winemaking techniques, and the wine developed commercial value. Saint Benedict of Aniane (his order owned Cluny) recommended wine drinking with meals. One “hemin” or ¼ litre was the suggested dose. The aim, roughly translated, was to keep the monks “in top form”.

We now move onto the renaissance period. The illustrious medical school of Salerno near Naples claimed it rejuvenated the aged. The renowned Dutch Humanist Erasmus drunk Beaune wine to shake up his digestion. Ambroise Paré, surgeon to the French court in the late 16th Century, applied red wine to wounds of soldiers. Médoc wines were already thought to have antibiotic properties. The Pharmacopoeia of 1677 recommended a mixture of oil and wine to clean wounds. Later publications recommended wholly wine based cures. These generally included maceration of medicinal plants corresponding to different ailments. Louis XIV’s physician advised him to replace Burgundy with Champagne to treat gout. At the end of his life, Louis, suffering from a gangrenous infection, was bathed in wine-based infusions. Unsurprisingly this didn’t save him and he soon passed away.

Come the 19th Century, Pasteur wrote a book “Etudes sur le Vin” in which he approved of wine’s cleansing properties. In 1959, the Bordeaux professor Masquelier confirmed the antibiotic properties of red wine and its effect on arteriosclerosis.

Wine, Digestion and Metabolism

In the Bible, Saint Paul gives this sage advice to one of his disciples. “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses”. His logic was sound. Swallowing 60 to 100 grams of wine results in the body secreting 100 to 120 grams of liquid containing around 1g of free hydrochloric acid. This state of acidity helps in the assimilation of proteins. Wine also supplies B-complex vitamins including riboflavin and pantothenic acid, which assist in metabolising proteins and carbohydrates. For sufferers of heartburn, wines chosen should be relatively low in acidity and rich in calcium. Anjou or Saumurois are suggestions of the Frenchman Dr. E. Maury in his 1989 publication “The Medicinal Benefits of Wine Drinking”. He says Medoc wines help give the stomach wall increased elasticity and aid digestion. This is through their richness in iron, phosphates and tannin. Sweet white wines can also assist in digestion through increasing the volume of bile secretion from the gall bladder.

Some of Maury’s findings are more debatable. He divides people into four temperamental categories. One can be Sanguine [air], Nervous [earth], Bilious [fire] or Lymphatic [water]. He recommends corresponding wines for each character type. He also recommends no more than one litre of wine (10% strength) a day for men, and half of that for women. He also dislikes tap water to an amusing degree. Drinking it with a meal is “an unfortunate error in taste and a grave dietary error, as it is one of the causes of dyspepsia. Relying on this tasteless beverage affects the elasticity of the stomach cavity and changes the catalytic value [the ability to break down foods] of the digestive juices, apart from its negative influence at a psychological level which, in the habitual water drinker, may encourage a tendency to pessimism and introspection”.

Wine is a food in itself. It contains a mixture of around 600 components including sugar, amino-acids, mineral salts, and proteins. Seen as a food, wine can reduce the body’s need for carbohydrates, which brings into focus the role wine can play in type-2 diabetes. Studies suggest that reservatrol in wine can prevent insulin resistance in cases where a patient’s body reacts less than usual to insulin, thereby raising blood sugar levels to above a healthy norm. In healthy patients it can help prevent type-2 diabetes. Studies have also shown that reservatrol can affect the metabolism in a positive way in cases of obesity. This is through activating what is knows as a SIRT1 gene. It is worth noting that combined with the alcohol some of these effects will be partially toned down.

Wine and Circulation

Reservatrol is one of hundreds of types of phenolic compounds found in wine, and is particularly prevalent in red wine. It is thought to lower the risk of cancer and heart disease, and is also present in white wine, rose and champagne in lower quantities than with reds. It reduces heart inflammation through lowering the level inflammatory blood chemicals or cytokines. This lowers “bad” cholesterol, the type which creates artery-blocking plaques. At the same time it increases “good” cholesterol which helps remove them.

Wine can also prevent the formation of lethal blood clots through the anticoagulant effect of alcohol. Alcohol reduces the “stickiness” of platelets that would otherwise stick together, along with the amount of fibrous protein that helps bind them together. Recent research also connects reservatrol with slowing down the lung ageing process and helping to combat emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Polyphenols in wine have received plenty of press as regards beneficial effects on blood pressure. Studies suggest that they affect levels of nitric oxide in the blood. This helps blood vessels to relax thereby lowering pressure. The alcohol acts too as a blood thinner, which can help prevent strokes.

Wine and Other Ailments

Beyond polyphenols, recent studies suggest that the silicone content of wine (Côtes du Rhône is notably high in silicon salts) may help increase bone strength. This leads to potential use in treatment of osteoporosis and other bone-related conditions. As well as silicone, wine from certain regions (e.g. Ventoux) contains raised levels of calcium phosphate, iron oxides and manganese. These are elements necessary for the remineralising of bone tissue. Copper, manganese, selenium and zinc have antioxidant properties too. Some wines are high in magnesium salts. Through helping to transport phosphorus, they assist in the calcifying of bone tissue.

Plenty of B complex vitamins exist in red wine. These include thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, folate, choline and B-6. They help in the running of the metabolism. Extra functions include forming new red blood cells, protecting brain cells and supporting the neurological system. Wine can help prevent the dying off of neurons in the brain. Likewise it may slow down the onset of brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Another interesting case is that of herpes. US research suggests that the antioxidants from the wine’s reservatrol can help control symptoms. This is through their positive effect on the immune system. Being applied to sores could also reduce the chances of it infecting others. Since the year 2000 when this first came to light, there doesn’t seem to have been much further testing done.

Wine has useful antibacterial benefits for stomach illnesses. Peptic ulcers as well as stomach cancer and gastritis are connected with a bacterium named Helicobacter Pylori. Moderate wine drinkers are less likely to have this present than non-drinkers. Gallstones are another medical ailment that seems to be less likely amongst moderate wine drinkers. Being partly composed of cholesterol, this could be a side-effect of reservatrol and its lowering of “bad” cholesterol.

Another fascinating study, carried out in the US in 1998, showed that the visual cells of (moderate) wine-drinkers were in markedly better condition than those of non-drinkers and drinkers of spirits and beer. Jancis Robinson suggests the antioxidant and anticoagulant properties of wine as a possible cause, and I’m not currently inclined to disagree.


To conclude, wine in moderation is very likely to be good for you! I could talk more the dangers of excess and the reactions that histamines and sulphites in wines can cause, but that’s just not fun. So I won’t. Neither will I directly endorse Dr. Maury’s litre-a-day recommendation, that may truly be the result of imbibing to excess.


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A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to visit Turkey, road-tripping around the Aegean and western Mediterranean regions, as well as visiting Istanbul. As regards Turkish wine, my experience had been limited to some none too memorable wines at the London wine fair many moons ago. They were made with classic European varieties and communicated no special message beyond vigorous oaking. Of late though, I’ve heard and read positive things. I was surprised to discover that Turkey is the world’s fifth largest grower of grapes (in terms of vineyard area), yet only 3% of these grapes are destined for wine. A similar quantity is destined for Raki, the local aniseed flavoured spirit which seems more popular in Turkey than local wines. This post isn’t going to dwell on Raki, but I found it indistinguishable from its Lebanese cousin Arak, and diluted with water it paired remarkably well with grilled meat. Surprisingly it didn’t have too much of an effect on my state of mind or body the next day.

The history of wine making in the region stretches back to distant antiquity.  The general consensus is that wine originated somewhere between eastern Turkey down through the Caucasus and down to the Zagros Mountains in North Western Iran, where in 1968 a team led by archaeologist Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania discovered traces of (grape) wine in clay jars, dating back to 5400 BC. More recently in 2017 a team of Georgian, European and North American researchers have discovered traces of wine in clay pottery at two sites in the Georgian Caucasus 30 miles south of Tbilisi, dating back to an astonishing 5980 BC. So I wouldn’t be surprised if similar-era relics are discovered in the future in eastern Turkey. The Hittites, whose empire encompassed most of modern day Turkey between the 16th and 12th centuries BC, protected wine making through their legal codes. Each vintage was celebrated with a holiday, emphasizing the importance of wine in local culture.

The Phrygians followed the Hittites, introducing wine in turn to the Greeks, with the local Muscat grape becoming one of the first to be commercially exported. Large-scale production continued throughout the Ottoman Empire (1285-1923).  Production was in the hands of non-Muslim minorities and suffered from only occasional prohibitions and clampdowns. In the late-1800’s, as the phylloxera epidemic ravaged European vineyards, Turkish exports increased. The secular reforms of Ataturk in the early 1920’s provided more for the wine industry to build upon, although the state continued to be the dominant producer right up through the late 1980’s. Ataturk himself founded the country’s first new winery for seven centuries in 1925 and was a notorious boozer, eventually succumbing to cirrhosis caused by a lifetime of Raki dominated excess.

Fast forward to this decade and more Turkish wine is being exported than ever before.  Unfortunately their Islamist President Erdogan is doing his best to put up obstacles, in the domestic market at least. In 2013 he banned the promotion of alcohol (including advertising and even wine tastings) along with imposing high local taxes. It’s impossible to import used barrels and complicated to import plant stock. More than ever before, Turkish wineries need to look abroad to have a chance of surviving and growing.

Luckily for its winemakers and brave entrepreneurs, Turkey has a diverse range of terroirs to grow vines, as well as a huge number of indigenous Vitis Vinifera varieties – around a thousand have been identified of which around fifty to sixty are grown commercially. Whilst formal areas of production haven’t been demarcated by the Turkish authorities, they can effectively be divided into three main areas.

The majority of production is from the Aegean region, with the modern, cosmopolitan city of Izmir as the main urban centre. This area accounts for around half of total production. The climate is mild, altitudes are generally low, and lots of European varieties are planted as well as Turkish varieties. About 30% of production originates in central Anatolia, mainly in the mid-eastern and mid-southern areas, with vineyards enduring severe winters and very high summer temperatures. Altitudes reach 1250 metres in some areas. Thrace and Marmara, stretching from the greater Istanbul area up towards the border with Greece, account for around 15% and are characterized by a warm coastal climate similar to North Eastern Greece and Southern Bulgaria. The Mediterranean makes a surprisingly small contribution of 0.2%.

My travelling adventure commenced in Istanbul. After a late arrival in Istanbul, I joined most of the locals and stuck to Raki, paired with an excellent dinner at Zübeyir Ocakbaşı, an old-school Turkish grill not far from Taksim Square, the focal point of modern, secular Istanbul (despite the ongoing construction of Erdogan’s mosque). The next evening we embarked upon a fruitless quest to buy a corkscrew, wondering if it’s joined the list of Erdogan-prohibited imports. Luckily this sommelier sniffed out a bottle of this easy-opening beauty at a Carrefour supermarket near to our apartment. Price around 7 US dollars.

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Kavaklidere is one of the oldest wineries in Turkey, dating back to 1929, with headquarters (and vineyards) in Ankara but other operations in the Aegean and Cappadocia regions. The latter is a particularly interesting subregion of South-Central Anatolia, characterized by volcanic soils and altitudes as high as 1200 metres.  The facilities are modern, with stainless steel the norm for fermentation. The premium wines enjoy ageing in new French oak, and 20% of total production is exported. This wine is made from the Öküzgözü varietal, one of the most popular in Eastern Anatolia along with Boğazkere. It was medium-bodied on the palate without much tannin, plenty of cherry and redcurrant fruit on the nose and a light but pleasant finish. The nearest comparison I could make would be a lighter Barbera from Piedmont or Lombardy. Over dinner I enjoyed a glass of local wine, which the waiter knew nothing about apart from its being a) wine and b) red. It had spice on the nose in a Musar-ey oxidative style which I rather liked (not too dissimilar from an Argentinean Weinert either). The mystery wine could have been a Cabernet-Merlot-Grenache blend, though it could have been something more left-field.

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From Istanbul I moved down the coast to Izmir, and first up was this potent blend of Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot from the Lucien Arkas Bağlari winery. Meaty in the extreme, oaky from 18 months in French and American barrels, and rather tannic, it had benefitted from some time in the bottle. The fruit was mature and dark with some leathery liquoricey spice and a long finish.

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Later that evening I got to sample some Aegean Sauvignon Blanc with a wonderful seafood dinner on the Izmir waterfront, though I was far too busy enjoying the food and amazing Turkish hospitality to take pictures. The Sauvignon Blanc had some floral and citric aromas, relatively low acidity for the variety and no new-world gooseberry whatsoever (nor old-world cats-pee). It paired well with the assorted grilled seafood that was wheeled out until I felt like exploding – a common feeling in this most hospitable of countries.

The next day, I managed to source a wine from the Kayra winery. This winery was state-owned up until 2004. It’s a good case study in the turning around of a loss-making winery making large quantities of mediocre wine into a modern producer of export-quality wines, albeit in lower quantities. This happened with the help of US investors Texas Pacific, and more latterly its current owners Diageo, and has all been overseen by a winemaker hailing from Napa, Daniel O’Donnell. When O’Donnell arrived at the winery, he even threw out 16 million litres of wine and sent the rest (sickly sweet rubbish) to Russia. Now he makes excellent modern wines, with a focus on local varieties.

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Buzbag is a well known local brand dating back to the 1940’s and this particular wine is a blend of Öküzgözü and Bogazkere. Bogazkere is another variety only found in Turkey, and it translates as “throat burner”. It’s highly tannic with thick skins and ageing potential. The Öküzgözü smooths it out considerably and adds fruit. I enjoyed the wine so much I bought another bottle the next day to drink at an Argentinean-style BBQ I was cooking, along with an unusual white which I was curious to taste.

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The Suvla winery is one of Turkey’s better modern wineries, located on the Gallipoli peninsula in eastern Thrace, and their wines have a regular presence at most of the countries higher-end restaurants. This Kanali Yapincak was highly unusual in its characteristics – on taste and aroma I’ld equate it more with a Georgian orange wine (aged underground in large earthenware qvevri) than any conventional whites from elsewhere. I picked up nuttiness on the nose, almonds and hazlenuts, a hint of tropical banana fruit, ripe apple, and some herby spice on the palate. Very unusual and the bottle was finished off in no time at all. Later in the trip I got to taste the Suvla Bogazkere-Öküzgözu. I’ld categorize it similar to the Buzbag, but slightly more elegant with a smoother, longer finish (worth noting it’s sold at a slightly higher price point). I also tasted their Cabernet Sauvignon, well-balanced although probably not enough potency of fruit and spice to capture the interest of export markets.

As a big fan of Malbec, upon arriving in Pamukkale I was interested to discover this blend, originating in eastern Turkey near Diyarbakir, at the lower end of the cheapie-price spectrum at around 26 lira or less than 5 dollars.

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For the price it wasn’t too bad. Almost Pinot-ey in its lightness with a fruit profile of raspberry, strawberry and some cherry. No oak (needless to say at that price) and in a blind test I’ld never have guessed that it contained Syrah.

For my final evening in Turkey back in Istanbul, we dined at the small and stylish restaurant Antochia. I was so saturated with food, wine and Turkish hospitality that I can’t even remember the wines. It was time to head home, lay off the red meat for a while and plan the next wine adventure.

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