What do Pinot Noir, good health and a bunch of clever researchers have in common Quite a lot, if you listen to Professor Lionel H Opie of the Hatter Heart Research Institute, UCT, and author of Living Longer Living Better, Exploring the heart-mind connection.

The common denominators Melatonin and resveratrol, among others!

For Prof Opie, Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Cape Town and Director of the Hatter Institute for Cardiovascular Research from 1997 to 2010, it all started with Pinot Noir which he loves. Working for the Cape Heart Centre at UCT, he started his research with his colleague Prof Sandrine Lecour who is married to Philippe Dietrich, Manager of Michael Paetzold Wine Services. Opie and Lecour reviewed all the many published studies and writing in the European Heart Journal, they stressed three basic principles from a cardioprotection point of view: modest alcohol is beneficial as part of a healthy life style, wine is even more beneficial and red wine has specific beneficial qualities. Prof Opie also emphasises that wine with meals is an integral part of the beneficial Mediterranean diet.

Prof Opie graduated from the University of Cape Town and started heart research at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and continued at Harvard. Then he became a specialist physician at the new University of Stellenbosch Medical School, before returning to Oxford and London for further training in heart research under two Nobel Prize winners.

After the famous Barnard transplant in 1969 he was invited to return to UCT for heart research. He is also a recipient of the highest Presidential award in SA, The Order of Mapungubwe, for national and international contributions to cardiology. The citation stated that Opie is considered Africa’s greatest living heart doctor (which he denies). Despite all these, however, Prof Opie comes over as modest, soft spoken, friendly … and he laughs a lot.

“Yes, I do agree that my own taste did come into this,” he told us at a presentation he gave at Paul Cluver Wines. “I just love Pinot Noir.”

At first, said Opie, he looked at various population studies (e g the “French Paradox”), lab studies (which is a subject of his work on pigs, rats and humans), as well as studies in humans. From his newly written book, Living Longer, Living Better, he states that the lifestyle “Big Five” factors to prevent heart and stroke are not smoking, exercising vigorously for at least 30 minutes a day, an ideal body weight: BMI < 25, a diet close to the Mediterranean and the use of alcohol preferably as wine (1-2 glasses for women, 2-3 for men).

In an interesting study done by Gronbeak, M et al. (BMJ 1995; 310:1165-1169) Mortality vs Wine, Beer and Spirits was investigated. Looking at the relative mortality risk of subjects with all causes of deaths taken into account (cardiovascular disease, cancer, all causes of death) and consuming wine, beer and spirits, it clearly showed that when consumed moderately, wine saved lives with a low relative mortality risk. With beer there was no mortality effect and with spirits lives were lost when more than two drinks were consumed daily. This led to his beliefs that wine, specifically, was beneficial.

What was it then in the wine and red wine specifically, that held the answer Was it the alcohol When he looked closely at studies done by Prof Sandrine Lecour from UCT, where she and postgraduate student Mrs Kim Lamont used de-alcoholised wines to see if they still had the same health benefits, things became even more interesting! They found that red wine, even when de-alcoholised, protects against a model heart attack. That led to the question of what did red wine contain that was beneficial to the human health Which were the protective components

“My co-workers Sandrine Lecour and Kim Lamont have discovered for the first time that there are two chemicals in wine that protect against model heart attacks in addition to resveratrol, already known to be protective, we found protection by melatonin which is a powerful antioxidant also found in the human body,” explained Prof Opie. “Acute treatment with melatonin and resveratrol at similar concentrations to those found in wine protects against a model heart attack, we discovered. Both these are found in red wine.”

Italian and Spanish wines (both red, white and liquors), melatonin levels are reported to be highest in red wines and ranged from 50 ng/litre to 200 ng/litre. Looking at resveratrol levels in wine, Pinot Noir from California, Beaujolais from France, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Chile, Zinfandel from California and Cabernet Sauvignon from California came up against each other. The Pinot Noir from California came out highest. Comparing this specific wine with the Cluver Pinot Noir 2009, the Cluver wine came out tops with 7.17 mg/litre versus 5.01 mg/litre in the Californian wine.

The only question remaining was to ask if melatonin was found in South African red wines

“We don’t know,” says Prof Opie. “It’s not been tested yet but we are currently investigating the concentration of melatonin in South African wines as part of a collaboration with the Institute for Wine Biotechnology at the University of Stellenbosch. We know that Nebbiolo in Italy has melatonin in it and Nebbiolo is grown in South Africa. For now, I will say this. Overall, the amounts of resveratrol and related compounds found in some red wines, such as Pinot Noir, are likely to be just enough to help to counter the vascular events that predispose to heart attacks.

“The ideal protective lifestyle is, non-smoking, ideal body weight, ideal diet, daily exercise and moderate alcohol. My personal choice for the latter A fine Pinot Noir.”

Melatonin. Also known chemically as N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine, melatonin is a naturally occurring compound found in animals, plants, and microbes. Many biological effects of melatonin are produced through activation of melatonin receptors, while others are due to its role as a pervasive and powerful antioxidant, with a particular role in the protection of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. In mammals, melatonin is secreted into the blood by the pineal gland in the brain. Known as the “hormone of darkness”, it is secreted in darkness in both day-active (diurnal) and night-active (nocturnal) animals. It may also be produced by a variety of peripheral cells such as bone marrow cells, lymphocytes and epithelial cells. Usually, the melatonin concentration in these cells is much higher than that found in the blood, but it does not seem to be regulated by the photoperiod. Wikipedia

Resveratrol. Resveratrol(3,5,4’-trihydroxy-trans-stilbene) is a stilbenoid, a type of natural polyphenol, and a phytoalexin produced naturally by several plants when under attack by pathogens such as bacteria or fungi.

Resveratrol is found in the skin of red grapes and in other fruits. Red wine contains a high level of it and some scientists believe it is one of the factors behind the French Paradox, while others believe proanthocyanidin is the active ingredient involved. Resveratrol has also been produced by chemical synthesis, or by biotechnological synthesis (metabolic engineered microorganisms) and is sold as a nutritional supplement derived primarily from Japanese knotweed. Wikipedia

Research is being done at the University of Stellenbosch on the impact of resveratrol after Dr Paul Cluver, owner of Paul Cluver Wines, who introduced Prof Opie and Prof Florian Bauer of the US to each other.

At Paul Cluver Wines assistant winemaker, Nina Swiegelaar, is also very excited about research being done between the farm and the University of Stellenbosch with Prof Florian Bauer, Professor in Wine Biotechnology at the Institute for Wine Biotechnology and Prof Melan Vivier, Professor in Grapevine Biotechnology, on how to raise the levels of resveratrol by using different yeast strains or different vinification methods and if it is at all possible to do so.

Pinot Noir was taken because of its high resveratrol levels and grapes were pressed and the juice went into 15 barrels, three of which were control barrels. They took six barrels and inoculated them with the same yeast. Six other barrels were inoculated with another yeast strain. Of each six barrels, three were filled with juice of grapes harvested normally and the other three contained 30% juice of whole bunches.

The verdict waits

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