Is younger wine better for anti-aging?

It’s been said that wine gets better with age, and age gets better with wine, and now we see a report that young wines are purportedly better for anti-aging. The widely circulated study, originally published in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research, measured resveratrol concentration in 16 red wines ranging from 1 to 6 years old, both initially and after storage for16 months.[1] While the concentration of free trans‐resveratrol (the biologically active isomer) in the wine was expected to increase, the researchers found a decrease of more that 75%. They concluded that this may reduce the “anticipated health benefits of wine.”

More to wine’s anti-aging effects beyond resveratrol

I’m not so sure, and in no hurry to uncork my precious bottles of Grange (which BTW isn’t even released before 5 years, long past the interval in this study.) One reason is that looking only at resveratrol is a reductio ad absurdum argument for wine and health. I used to be as enthusiastic as anyone about resveratrol, even dubbing it the “miracle molecule” in my first book. It seemed to neatly and comprehensively explain wine’s anti-aging properties, but the cognoscenti have known for some time that it isn’t so simple. Even in wine’s most adolescent efflorescence, there isn’t nearly enough resveratrol to adequately explain its health benefits. Resveratrol doesn’t work alone; wine’s health benefits derive from interactions of a panoply of biomolecules working synergistically with each other, with food, alcohol, and lifestyle. People, we’ve been through this; we know enough now to consider wine’s anti-aging bounty in all of its glorious complexity.

A lot happens to wine with aging, both in the barrel and in the bottle, and of course all wines age differently. Like so many others nowadays, the Australian wines evaluated in this study seem likely to have been made in a style adapted to the modern market, intended for early consumption rather than cellaring. Alcohol content, pH, and tannin profiles are all critical variables for how a wine ages. This makes it hazardous to extrapolate from a single study. Compare for example a 2006 study of 21 California red wines from 1 to 28 years old, which found that the level of low molecular‐weight phenolic oligomers decreased with age, while the level of high molecular‐weight phenolics increased; yet there was no diminishment in the antioxidant capacity of the wine.[2]

This jives with findings that polymerization of procayanidins (increasing their molecular weight) with bottle aging enhances the potential vascular benefits of wine.[3] Procyanidin-rich wines are typical of the subregions in France and Sardinia that most closely exhibit the French Paradox. Such a correlation has not been documented for resveratrol. Because these wines derive much of their tannins from the pips, some are approachable in their youth only for the hardy. (Personal experience; I do know if these wines are typically aged before consumption in their local regions.)

Changes with bottle aging also vary by the variety and by storage conditions. Interestingly, closure type does not appear to make much of a difference, at least for Malbecs from Mendoza, according to a 2019 study comparing wines bottled with screw cap and natural cork, stored at 15 °C or 25 °C for 2 years. While this group did not look at resveratrol, they found that concentrations of free sulfur dioxide, anthocyanins, tannins, esters, volatile phenols, and color saturation all decreased during storage. In contrast, the formation of polymeric pigments and the levels of alcohols, norisoprenoids, furanoids and terpenoids increased. Cooler storage conditions resulted in organoleptically better wines, but closure type did not. So that’s one less variable at least.

Terroir and tradition may be the most important variables in how wines change with age, and how these transformations influence health. Grapes retain their signature after aging, though it is terroir that writes the letter. The topic of terroir is reluctant to submit to scientific analysis, but there is some evidence to consider. One analysis compared the phenolic compound profile in Malbec wines from Argentina and California, evaluated after five years of aging. Each remained chemically distinctive to region of origin.[4] And if you want a wine with a slower rate of flavonol loss, look for a Spanish Tempranillo.[5]

My point is that there is just too much going on with bottle aging to generalize about changes in potential health benefits from one type of wine in one country with a focus on only one molecule. Young wines have their place, but aged wines from a great vintage are one of the transcendent joys of civilized life. Longevity in the wine must surely confer something good for you, even if it is just the insistence on a slow moment to savor it.

In vino sanitas (In wine there is health)

Pliny the Elder (23-79)

The best kind of wine is that which is most pleasant to him who drinks it.

Ibid.


[1] Naiker, M., Anderson, S., Johnson, J., Mani, J., Wakeling, L. and Bowry, V. (2020), Loss of trans‐resveratrol during storage and ageing of red wines. Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research.

[2] Roginsky, V., de Beer, D., Harbertson, J.F., Kilmartin, P.A., Barsukova, T. and Adams, D.O. (2006), The antioxidant activity of Californian red wines does not correlate with wine age. J. Sci. Food Agric., 86: 834-840.

[3] Caton PW, Pothecary MR, Lees DM, et al. Regulation of vascular endothelial function by procyanidin-rich foods and beverages. J Agric Food Chem. 2010;58(7):4008-4013.

[4]Agazzi FM1, Nelson J2, Tanabe CK3, Doyle C3, Boulton RB3, Buscema F4. Aging of Malbec wines from Mendoza and California: Evolution of phenolic and elemental composition. Food Chem. 2018 Dec 15;269:103-110.)

[5] Monagas, M., Bartolomé, B. & Gómez-Cordovés, C. Evolution of polyphenols in red wines from Vitis vinifera L. during aging in the bottle. Eur Food Res Technol 220, 331–340 (2005).

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