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Bartender, a Glass of Medicine, Please

Wineries are developing wines dosed with high amounts of resveratrol. But is this sound science?

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: January 20, 2009

With all the buzz surrounding scientific research on resveratrol, the polyphenolic compound found in red wine, it was only a matter of time: Someone has produced a "resveratrol-enhanced" wine. Whether or not it actually has health benefits is a matter of debate. But it will certainly not be the last wine to make the claim.

Numerous studies have found evidence that resveratrol may be a tool for fighting an array of health problems, from aging to Alzheimer's to obesity. The compound is an essential part of the immune system of grapevines, and seeps into red wine during fermentation and maceration with the skins and seeds, where the chemical is most concentrated. But most of those scientific studies come with important caveats. Conclusive clinical trials on humans are still in the works. And most of the studies have used doses of resveratrol far larger than what's contained in the average bottle of wine.

To overcome that problem, some pharmaceutical firms have been working on resveratrol supplements, harnessing the power of the red wine compound in a pill.

But some wineries are taking the exact opposite approach. Several projects are currently underway that attempt to add resveratrol to wine in an attempt to maximize the dosage in one bottle. One doctor in Australia claims he has already succeeded, and the Spanish government is investing big bucks in the hopes that a handful of producers in Rioja will be next.

Family physician Philip Norrie has been practicing medicine in Sydney for more than 30 years, but has also made a name for himself writing several wine-themed books and studying wine's impact on health. He recently established a winery, Pendarves Estate REW, and just released two resveratrol-enhanced wines under the label The Wine Doctor, a Chardonnay and a Shiraz, both made with McLaren Vale grapes.

Norrie said he takes the leftover grapes after pressing and extracts residual resveratrol and concentrates it into a powder. The powder is then added to the wine before bottling. Norrie says the process, for which he holds a patent, does not change the wine's color, clarity, nose or taste.

Norrie said each wine contains 100 milligrams per liter of resveratrol. By comparison, most red wines contain between 4 to 8 milligrams of resveratrol per liter. The wines are available in Australia. Pendarves Estate REW is exploring exporting to Europe and the United States, though in Europe the winery faces EU regulations governing additives and in the U.S., federal regulators frown on making health claims on labels.

Is this healthy wine or just a marketing gimmick? Experts seem skeptical. "This sounds like marketing hype for the gossip columns, not medical evidence," said Andrew Waterhouse, chair of the Department of Viticulture & Enology at University of California, Davis. "It may have some beneficial effects, but what those are is not documented by this proponent or any other."

"There still is no data on humans showing that large doses of resveratrol do anything in particular, and without a doubt, this does not act as a 'vascular pipe-cleaner'," added Waterhouse, in reference to a comment Norrie made describing the wine's health benefits.

And Waterhouse is not alone in his incredulity. Bill Sardi, who worked on the creation of a resveratrol supplement (though he has distanced himself from that product) on the market today, expressed his doubts over the creation of resveratrol-enhanced wines. "Wine does not exert healthy effects via resveratrol alone," he said.

Pendarves sales and marketing chief Adrian Read remains undeterred by such criticism and said the market for such a product shows potential. "This is a serious product, not a gimmick, and adding resveratrol to wine may in the future be as normal as adding fluoride to water supplies," he said. If Norrie's wine survives the "novelty period," as Read puts it, a Sauvignon Blanc-based white and a Cabernet-Merlot blend will be added to the range, at about $25 per bottle on retail shelves.

On the other side of the globe, nine wineries in Rioja are developing their own enhanced wine. Staffers at Bodegas Bilbaínas, Dinastía Vivanco, Viña Hermosa - Santiago Ijalba, Juan Alcorta, Marqués de Murrieta, Ontañón, Patrocinio, Regalía de Ollauri and Bodegas Riojanas have spent the last year researching ways to supplement wines with 10 times the dose of resveratrol and quercetin (another red wine antioxidant) naturally found in the area's Tempranillo-based red wines. The project, sponsored by the Innovation Department of the Federation of Entrepreneurs of La Rioja and the Economic Development Agency of the Government of La Rioja, has a total budget of $1.06 million. The first prototype wines are being tested this year. The wineries and the project's spokeswoman declined interview requests.

The jury remains out on whether these new wines will be a fad or medicine by the glass. For now, Norrie is enjoying being the only player in the game. "I sell my 'Wine Doctor' wine to my patients, I have order forms on my receptionist's desk in front of every patient," he said. "They love buying it!"

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