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Should You Avoid White Wine in Favor of the Possibly Superior Health Benefits of Red Wine?

Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal wrote an article, “Is Red Wine Really Healthier than White?”, that appeared recently in the weekend edition dated January 29-30, 2022. She approached me for an opinion about the supposed health benefits of red wine over white white and I responded in kind. Here is my complete response.

The question of the relative health benefits of red versus white wine is an interesting one. I have not conducted a study to answer that question. I did, however, look at the last 15 years of writing about wine and health in the PinotFile as well as any peer-reviewed research that might answer this question in the scientific literature on PubMed. Here is what I found.

Cornell scientist Leroy Creasy first isolated resveratrol from red wines in 1991 and later theorized that resveratrol was at least partly responsible for red wine’s health benefits. This led to a plethora of research studies on red wine and more specifically resveratrol and very few studies on white wine. Most scientific research on the health benefits of wine over the past three decades did not differentiate between red and white wine and clumped study participants into “wine drinkers.”

Despite years of research, all we can say for sure is that red wine is possibly healthier than other alcoholic beverages because of its polyphenol content. It does seem very clear that the consumption of wine, particularly red wine, imparts a greater benefit in the prevention of cardiovascular disease than the consumption of other alcoholic beverages.

Both red and white wine have the same amount of carbohydrates and calcium, with red wine having slightly more calories than white wine. Unique to red wine are iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, choline and a much higher concentration of anti-oxidative polyphenols, organic compounds found in the skins and seeds of grapes that research has shown to provide several potential health benefits.

One glass of red wine has 200 mg of polyphenols compared to 40mg for white wine primarily because red wines are macerated on their skins that contain high amounts of the group of polyphenols known as anthocyanins. The degree of polyphenol enrichment compared to white wine is the only major component difference between red and white wines.

Champagne, however, has been shown to contain relatively high amounts of phenolic acids since both red and white wines are used in its production. Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition, November 30, 2009, found that people who drank moderate amounts of Champagne daily received beneficial effects on the circulatory system similar to those observed for drinkers of red wine.

Although moderate consumption of red wine is thought to be healthier as a result of high polyphenol content, the alcohol in both red and white wines itself confers health benefits on imbibers such as reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. And although both red wine and alcohol alone impart cardioprotection, the mechanisms of cardioprotection differ from each other.

Research in Italy published in PLOS ONE online in 2014 suggested that white wine may be as healthy as red wine. This study focused specifically on the polyphenol caftaric acid that is found in both red and white wines and is a powerful antioxidant that may have resveratrol-like effects. The results showed that caftaric acid improved the health of arteries by increasing the availability of the vasodilator nitric oxide in lab mice. The researchers theorized that the antioxidant property of caftaric acid might explain the potential cardiovascular protection resulting from moderate white wine consumption as part of a typical Mediterranean diet.

The traditional healthy Mediterranean Diet Pyramid does not distinguish between red and white wine, only that it should be consumed daily in moderation.

A study published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture in January of 1999, “Concentrations of Selected Polyphenols in White Commercial Wines,” looked at 644 white wines from major wine-producing regions. It was found in all instances, the concentration of the polyphenols measured in white wines were 5% to 25% less than those of red wines. They also showed that polyphenols’ diversity and levels are dependably due to different grape varieties and their geographical origin. Climatic factors that appear to modulate polyphenol concentrations in red wines such as stress, fungal pressure and sunlight do not seem to be important for white wines. The intrinsic properties of the individual clones together with regional differences in winemaking techniques such as skin contact may be the most important contributors in determining final polyphenol concentrations in finished wines.

Recently published research in the Obesity Science & Practice Journal found that drinking wine as opposed to beer or spirits shows no association with an increased risk of elevated levels of visceral fat - the harmful type of fat that is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and other heath complications. Researchers also found that drinking red wine was linked to having lower levels of visceral fat. Although white wine consumption did not influence levels of visceral fat, the study did show that drinking white wine in moderation might offer its own unique health benefit for older adults: denser bones. The same link was not found between beer or red wine consumption and bone mineral density.

Staining of teeth can be due to red or white wine but white wine has more acidity and more tendency to break down enamel, leaving teeth more vulnerable to pigmented food and drinks. Drinking white wine before red wine can worsen teeth staining.

A study of wine-drinking subjects published in 2013 in Substance Use & Misuse from Iowa State University found that white wine pours were 9.2 percent more generous than red which may reduce the health benefits of drinking in moderation.

I want to mention my personal critique of a white wine called White Pinot Noir, the bastard offspring of Pinot Noir. No decent Pinot Noir grapes should be wasted on this worthless wine that doesn’t know if it is a rosé or aromatic white, a lousy Pinot Gris or watered down Pinot Noir. In any case, it has no redeeming value and should be phased out like Gallo’s Thunderbird. Anyone who buys Domaine Serene’s Coeur Blanc (fancy term for White Pinot Noir) for $105 should seek psychiatric counseling.

In summary: White wine may have been given a bad rap, so don’t avoid a glass of your favorite Chardonnay for fear that it isn’t as “healthy” as a glass of red wine. The pattern of wine drinking is more important than the type of wine you drink. One or two glasses of red or white wine consumed slowly and enjoyed most days preferably with food while avoiding splurges would seem to offer the most health benefit particularly in those over 50 years of age.

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