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Oak and Health? Recent Research Finds a Possible Link
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed December 15, 2003. For more information go to

If wine were marketed like fast-food hamburgers, the most common question in the wine shop or restaurant might just be, "Would you like oak with that?"

The sweet, spicy and aromatic character that oak imparts to wine has created a booming market that might threaten to decimate virgin forests in wine-producing regions. Based on his ratings, the critic Robert M. Parker Jr. appears to love the stuff; and so, it seems, do the tasters at Wine Spectator magazine.

Most of us, I think, don't object to a taste of oak to round out the fruit flavors and fill the gaps to produce a balanced and complex wine. There's a good reason why many of the world's best wines spend time maturing in oaken casks, and why many wines labeled "reserve" are set apart from their brethren because of the extra time they spend aging in oak.

For a while there, though, it seemed that critical enthusiasm, and mass-market tastes, were inspiring some producers to use barrels (or an industrial short-cut, oak chips added to wine in vats) to create a beverage that tasted more like wood juice with grapes in it than the other way around.

By the 1990s, the near-universal dominance of oak in Chardonnay led some wine enthusiasts to abandon the grape entirely, marching under the banner "ABC" ("Anything But Chardonnay"). Oak certainly wasn't limited to Chardonnay, though, or to white wines; its spicy signature became commonplace in wines ranging from Australian Shiraz to California Cabernet, and even began turning up in "international-style" wines from Europe, seemingly made intentionally to capture high ratings points from American reviewers.

Happily, some balance seems to be returning nowadays, as more producers - and wine lovers - recognize the wisdom in the phrase coined by Boston wine merchant Richard Eccleston: "Oak should be a spice, not a sauce."

A recent news item, however, may give oak new life. In a snippet titled "Oak Barrels May Sweeten Red Wine's Anti-Cancer Potential," Scientific American reports on a study in today's issue of the German journal Angewandte Chemie International ("Applied Chemistry International") suggesting that the oak component in red wines may help protect against cancer in humans.

This echoes earlier publicity about "The French Paradox," the supposition that French people may enjoy good heart health in spite of a fatty diet because they consume red wine regularly. Wide publicity about this effect a decade ago resurrected what had been a shrinking market for red wine, a boost that has persisted to this day and shows no signs of abating.

"The putative health benefits of red wine stem mainly from so-called polyphenol molecules that are known for their antioxidant activity," Scientific American reports. Now, it says, researcher Stephane Quideau and colleagues at the European Institute of Chemistry and Biology in France have found two polyphenols in red wine that can potentially react with oak barrels to form Acutissimin A, a potent anti-tumor compound.

Wine stored in oak seems to "extract a whole bouquet of substances" from the barrels, Quideau said, adding that researchers found two types of Acutissimin compounds in red wine that had been aged for 18 months in oak. Researchers said that Acutissimin A seems to inhibit an enzyme that is a target for cancer treatment; in "in vitro" studies, it was 250 times more powerful than a clinically used cancer drug.

These findings offer intriguing grist for speculation, but the researchers cautioned that it is far too early to leap to the conclusion that red wine prevents cancer. Indeed, although the article didn't mention it, other studies have shown a slight increase in breast cancer among women who consume wine.

Read the Scientific American article.

The current issue of Angewandte Chemie International is online in English but access to the full text of the article requires a paid subscription.


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