Why fizz is good for you

JOHN Mortimer, the author who created the scuzzy lawyer Rumpole of the Bailey, used to say that champagne was the secret to a long life. Mortimer drank a glass of fizz every morning, before settling down to work on his plays and novels. He lived to a sprightly and active 85, and was publishing books right into the last year of his life. Now scientists have caught up with Mortimer, and are also saying that – in moderation, naturally – a bit of bubbly is beneficial to the health.
According to research carried out at the university of Reading and recently published in the British Journal of Nutrition, champagne can lower blood pressure and reduce the chances of heart attacks and strokes.

The benefit comes from the presence of chemicals called polyphenols. Polyphenols prevent nitric oxide leaving the bloodstream, which lowers blood pressure. Researchers gave one group 375ml of champagne a day and a control group a drink containing 12 percent alcohol and an equivalent amount of ethanol, sugars, vitamins, minerals and acids. Samples taken afterwards showed elevated levels of nitric oxide in the blood, as well polyphenol metabolites in the urine of the champagne group. “A daily moderate consumption of champagne,” concluded the researchers, “may improve vascular performance.”

The idea that wine is good for you might all sound familiar. But usually, as we know, it is red wine and not white whose health-giving properties are vaunted. So what is the story here? In fact, the argument is that champagne is beneficial for exactly the same reason that red wine is: because of the grapes used to make it.

Generally, red wines are made from black grapes, and white wine from white grapes. But, of course, it is not the colour of the grapes that gives the wine its colour. Red wines are darker because the skins are kept in with the wine as if ferments.

Theoretically, white wine can be made from dark grapes and in the case of sparkling wines, it often is. Champagne is traditionally made from a mixture of three grape varieties – chardonnay, which is a white grape, and pinot noir and pinot meunier, which are both dark grapes. The presence of these is what led scientists to suspect that champagne might share some of the health-giving properties of red wine.

So are some champagnes better for you than others? The research would suggest so. If the scientists are right, then those champagnes with a higher percentage of pinot meunier and pinot noir ought to be better for you than those which are made with a large amount of chardonnay.

Most champagnes are made with about two-thirds black grape varieties and one third chardonnay, although those called blanc de blanc are made entirely from chardonnay, while those called blanc de noirs are made only from dark grape varieties. The latter ought to have higher levels of polyphenols and in theory at least, be better for you.

Fans of bubbly will be pleased to hear that this is not the first time that champagne has been shown to be good for health. In 2007, research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry – also carried out by the same team at the University of Reading, who seem to be on to a good thing – said that the polyphenols in champagne also protect the brain from Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and strokes.

So do you have to splash out on champagne to get these health benefits, or are other sparkling wines just as good for you? This depends on the grapes: those made form dark varieties will be more beneficial to health than those made with white grapes.

It follows, then, that the Italian prosecco will not be as good for you as champagne, as it is made entirely from a white grape variety, as is Spanish cava. German sekt is made from a number of grapes, sometimes including the dark pinot noir. The traditional champagne grapes are widely used in California, meaning that it might be your best bet for a non-champagne sparkler with health benefits.

Of course, this is not a case of having carte blanche to go and start knocking back the bubbly secure in the belief that you will live for ever. The key word in all of this is “moderation”. Polyphenols do not by any stretch of the imagination cancel out the risks of drinking to excess, such as cirrhosis of the liver, heart type-2 disease and obesity, which lurk in the background, no matter how expensive the variety of booze that you drink.

For those who do not drink alcohol, there are other ways to get your polyphenol fix. Plenty of other foods, such as broccoli and cranberries, and other drinks including cocoa, coffee, and tea, also contain large amounts of polyphenols, which suggests that they would also be good for the heart.
Still, as we approach Christmas, we might well be tempted to raise a glass to the scientists at the University of Reading.