The link between Sardinian red wine and improved health and longevity is considered this week. For publication in week of 20 February 2017.
In recent years attention has focused on the five areas of the world where people live long and healthy lives known as the Blue Zones. Sardinia, 190 km off Italy’s west coast and the second largest island in the Mediterranean, was the first discovered.
Much of the attention has come from the United States. Despite having some of the world’s best health services, only one person in 5,000 lives to 100 in that country. Women centenarians outnumber men four to one. A study of 17,865 Sardinians born between 1880 and 1900 reported 91 centenarians. The gender ratio was one to one. In America the number of centenarians in a similar-sized cohort would be perhaps 4.
A 2012 study showed that the number of Sardinian centenarians as a proportion of the population had declined compared with the earlier study, probably because of the influence of prosperity, but was still far better than in the United States.
Many factors contribute to longevity. Our genes represent about 20 per cent of the equation. Other factors include exercise, diet, stress, laughter, a sense of purpose and certain styles of wine consumption. Because this is a wine column we will only describe the other factors briefly.
Dr Paolo Francalacci of Sassari University in northern Sardinia believes the people of Sardinia remain genetically distinct from Europe, which explains the genetic component of their longevity. Journalist Dan Buettner wrote a series of articles for National Geographic magazine that he published in the book The Blue Zones. He wrote that the red blood cells of Sardinians were unusually small “providing … a lesser chance of dangerous blood clots” which cause heart attacks.
Sardinia has about five million sheep, against 1.6 million people. Shepherds typically walk at least 8km a day. The island’s rugged terrain and relatively small number of vehicles meant that people got lots of exercise, though that has changed in recent years as people became more prosperous and purchased cars.
Sheep and goats graze on shrubs and herbs free of pesticides. Gianni Pes, the doctor who first identified the Blue Zones, is quoted in Buettner’s book as saying the Sardinian dwarf curry shrub contains “one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory drugs ever found”.
Sardinian markets sell fresh and high quality produce. Almost everything is grown locally. Various studies have shown that a diet high in flavonoids, typically found in brightly-coloured vegetables and fruit, is associated with reduced incidence of cancer and heart disease. Until recently the Sardinian diet was mostly plant based: pulses, whole wheat, garden vegetables and goat’s milk and cheese. People only ate meat on special occasions.
The population appears relaxed and unaffected by time pressures, and of course the word “sardonic” relating to humour comes from Sardinia. Buettner notes the importance of family. He quotes the daughter of a centenarian as saying her mother lived for the family: “It’s about loving and being loved,” the daughter said.
Last week’s column noted that Cannonau di Sardegna wines have attracted attention because of their association with longevity. Cannonau wines contain high levels of antioxidants, which have been linked to heart health.
Professor Torquato Frulio of the University of Sassari showed me a recent research study indicating that of 364 centenarians (149 men and 215 women) on the island, 93 per cent of men and 62 per cent of women were moderate wine drinkers.
What is moderate? About 200ml per day for men and about 100ml for women, Professor Frulio said, explaining that typically centenarians had one glass with lunch and another with dinner, every day of the week. Interestingly, only 2 per cent of the group drank beer. Sardinians often say “a chent annos” to each other, which translates as “may you live to 100”.
Buettner wrote that Cannonau had “two to three times the level of artery-scrubbing flavonoids as other wines” and suggested that moderate wine consumption “may help explain the lower levels of stress among men”.
Professor Luigi Bavaresco of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Piacenza in Italy confirmed that a healthy diet involved what he and colleagues called a “Mediterranean way of drinking”. This consisted of regular and moderate wine consumption, mainly with food, of up to two glasses a day for men and one glass for women, they wrote in the paper Mediterranean Way of Drinking and Longevity published last year in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. Moderate wine drinking “increases longevity [and] reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases,” the paper concluded.
“The Mediterranean diet is based on abundant and variable plant foods, high consumption of cereals, olive oil as the main added fat, low intake of red meat and moderate consumption of wine,” the paper said. “Red wine, which is typically consumed in Mediterranean countries, contains a complex mixture of potentially preventive bioactive compounds (predominantly phenolic) and in particular flavonols.”
Some years ago resveratrol was suggested as a way to explain the so-called French paradox, where people with diets high in fatty meat and cheeses had low levels of heart disease because they drank red wine. Sales of red wine soared in some countries. But Professor Bavaresco said a person would need to drink several bottles of red wine a day to obtain sufficient resveratrol in liquid form.
Chinese companies have started making resveratrol tablets by extracting the chemical from the pips and skins left over from the wine making process. Tablets are now available in pharmacies in Asia.
“Resveratrol in particular appears of relevant importance because it prevents or delays the onset of chronic diseases such as diabetes, inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular disease; moreover, resveratrol induces neuroprotection and inhibits proliferation of human cancer cell lines and favours the increase of longevity,” Professor Bavaresco and his colleagues wrote in their paper.
Below are some of the Sardinian wines that won gold medals at Grenaches du Monde (reported in last week’s column). It is the premier competition for what is believed to be the world’s most-planted red grape variety. Grenache is known as Cannonau in Sardinia.
The 2015 Argei Le Fattorie Renolia, 2014 Chuerra Riserva by Vitivinicola Antichi, 2014 Costera and 2013 Senes Riserva by Argiolas, 2015 Dicciosu from Cantina Lilliu, 2015 Dolia from Cantina Sociale di Dolianova, 2015 Fudora from Societa Agricola Pranu Tuvara, 2013 Irilai from Cantina Sociale Oliena and 2013 Le Sabbie from Meloni Vini.
All are from the Cannonau di Sardegna DOC. The DOC, awarded in 1972, covers the entire island from the capital Cagliari in the south to Gallura in the north – a distance of about 265km. About one bottle in every five of Sardinian wine is a Cannonau di Sardegna. Sardinia has about 24,000 hectares of vineyards, with 7,500 devoted to Cannonau.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a judge at Grenaches du Monde and a guest of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon.
FOOD IN SARDINIAN MARKETS