The color of most red wines in Georgia is intense. It's dark and deep.
When you first pour a glass of any wine, some temporary bubbles form at the surface. With some Georgian wines, even the bubbles are dark.
One day last year, while we were living in that country, we took a day to go wine tasting outside the capital and into the countryside. As we sat at an outdoor picnic table on a bright, clear day, a thought occurred to me: Is this dark Georgian wine healthier than "regular" wine? (See the picture? That's the wine we were tasting.)
Georgians will tell you that wine is the ultimate health food. About a third of the people we met there make wine at home.
Over the past few decades, something of a scientific consensus has formed over the health attributes of wine.
Moderate drinking, especially moderate drinking of red wine, has been found to extend life and lower rates of lifestyle diseases like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
This is somewhat counterintuitive, because wine and other drinks can contain sugar and of course all contain alcohol — excessive sugar and alcohol consumption are linked to higher rates of the very diseases moderate drinking helps with.
In other words, wine improves health, while simultaneously containing attributes that degrade health.
What's going on?
One reason isolated by research is that wines, especially red wines, contain polyphenols. These are plant compounds that exist in wine because, of course, wine is made out of grapes.
While all wines are made with grape juice, some wines are also made with extensive exposure to grape skins, seeds and stems.
Polyphenols are found mainly in the skins and seeds of grapes. It's from this exposure to skins, seeds and stems that gives red wines far greater polyphenol content than white wines. Orange wines and rosés also contain polyphenols from exposure to skins during the winemaking process.
Even red wines vary wildly in their concentrations of polyphenols. For example, wines made from Tannat or Sagrantino grapes may have up to six times more polyphenols than a typical cab or merlot.
In general, there's a direct connection between the darkness of a wine and its concentration of health-giving polyphenols.
Which brings us back to Georgian wines. Some early research has found, unsurprisingly, that Georgian wines made from the Saperavi grape variety contain far higher concentrations of the polyphenol resveratrol than both major European grape varieties and even other Georgian varieties.
(Georgian winemakers use hundreds of Georgian grape varieties, but Saperavi dominates production.)
Saperavi is a rare kind of grape variety, too. It's called a teinturier variety, which means that the flesh of the grape is red, rather than clear. Almost all grape varieties have clear flesh. So Saparavi skins are very dark, and the flesh is colored, too. That's why Saparavi is so intensely dark. (A grape grown in Spain and Portugal, called the Alicante Bouschet variety, and one grown mainly in the United States, called Chambourcin, are also teinturier grapes with colored flesh.)
Also: The Georgian method for wine-making involves a natural process with heavy contact with skins, seeds and stems, natural fermentation (no added yeast) and fermentation in terracotta pots buried in the ground.
The Georgians are right: Georgian wine is super healthy.
One way to look at high-polyphenol wines is that it enables you to maximize the benefits of polyphenols while minimizing your intake of alcohol and sugar. You might get the same polyphenol benefit from two glasses of dry, high-polyphenol as you'd might get from two bottles of a lower-polyphenol wine. It's obviously healthier.
In any event, you don't need to be a wine expert or scientist to choose the healthiest wines.
Here's what to look for:
1. Natural and traditional winemaking methods. The only ingredient should be grapes, not yeast or additives. Added sulfites are OK in very small quantities.
2. Look for wines made with grapes grown using organic or biodynamic methods.
3. To maximize polyphenol content, go for very dark, bold, heavy fruit, bitter and tannic wines, and drink them young.
4. To minimize sugar intake, favor dry wines.
5. Favor lower alcohol wines.
So there you have it: Five things to look for to maximize the health-giving quality of the wine you drink.
Remember: It's still OK to drink white wines, aged wines, sweet wines and higher alcohol wines if you do it in moderation. Moderation is a virtue, and so is variety.
Also remember that wine isn't a cure-all. It can be part of an overall Spartan Diet that includes a very healthy and varied diet, daily exercise, stress management and clean water, air and environment.
But if you want to maximize health in the wine you drink, go for my five criteria when choosing wine.