When wine grapes are medicine, forgotten varieties deserve a second look

Autocthonous, adj. – Indigenous to a particular environment, habitat, or geographical area.

Italy, like other places that have vineyards substantially older than their nationhoods, mothers a gobsmacking number of unique, local, autocthonous grape varieties known only to village natives and sleep-deprived MW students obliged to memorize them all. At the risk of offending, most aren’t famous for good reason. International grape varieties (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, riesling, and the like) become international in part because they grow well in diverse locales, in part because of accidents of history, but in part because they tend to make darn good wine. Even as the recent fashion for weird, little-known, and hard-to-get wines means that hyper-local varieties are hearing their names uttered in distant lands (like London and San Francisco wine bars), they’re a niche interest at best.

Nevertheless, lots of scientific work has recently been going into documenting these autocthonous grape varieties. A cynical observer might attribute that to the necessary technology being newly cheap and still trendy, a less cynical one to our renewed appreciation for biodiversity. We could even end up rediscovering lost talent and invigorating new wine styles, like finding the greatest novel of the 20th century as a manuscript in the bottom drawer of your great-aunt’s writing desk and giving it the publication run it always deserved. While we’re waiting for that to happen, there’s actually a different and you might say nobler motive at work. Biologists are hunting for medically useful compounds, and Frosinone in Latium in Central Italy has become their new Amazon rain forest.

Italian biologists have been scouring their countryside for “local, ancient ecotypes” and, beyond the usual business of documenting whether they’re genetically unique, a recent paper takes the extra steps of measuring their concentrations of antioxidant phenolic compounds and observing their effects against proliferating cancer cells. Having first ranked their 37 autocthonous Frosinone varieties by anti-oxidizing and free radical-fighting capacity, they threw concentrated seed extracts at model cancer cells growing in lab dishes. And some of the cancer cells died or stopped growing!

Now, dead cancer cells floating in dishes are clearly a very, very, very long way from wine grape seed extracts being used as the next cancer-fighting miracle drug. But. Compounds from wine grapes likely will (continue to) be investigated as medications. And no matter whether Zimavacca or one of the numerous unnamed “new genetic profiles” from this study become the trendy new somm-bait, we have good reasons to preserve such things. Analyzing samples from odd nooks about the countryside shouldn’t need economic justification: preserving our cultural-biological history is a good fight. But in the present climate, a little economic justification doesn’t hurt.

And the winner for strangest wine experiment of the year goes to…

Research about the effect of wine on cancer is pretty common. Witness the slew of attention resveratrol has received for being, among other things — like the fountain of eternal youth or your key to firm skin with no injections — an anti-cancer agent. We also see plenty of epidemiological research: the population studies that say things like “moderate red wine drinkers are less likely to develop lung cancer.

How these studies work is easy to understand. Cancer-like cells grown in dishes are bathed in resveratrol-containing solutions and observed afterwards (in vitro = “in glass;” the dishes are more likely plastic these days, but the Romans didn’t have a word for plastic, gosh darn-it). Or whole organisms — mice, worms, humans — are fed resveratrol and observed afterwards (in vivo = “in the living”).

In the “I haven’t seen this before” file is an article released in preliminary form at Cancer Cell International a week or two ago that did things a bit differently. They bathed in vitro lung cancer cells in wine. Picture where your lungs are and where wine goes when you drink it. See the problem?

Wine per se never gets past your stomach. Just about everything we eat is broken down into component parts before being pulled out of the digestive tract and into the blood, with the indigestibles — things that can’t be broken down and transported into the blood, like the cellulose in plants — being left to exit the other end. Where and how a compound makes the move from digestion to blood depends on the compound. Polyphenols, the class of chemical which includes tannins and anthocyanins that give wine astringency and color, respectively, are mostly absorbed in the small intestines. Resveratrol** and alcohol are both fairly unusual in being absorbed directly across the mucous membranes in the mouth and pulled into the bloodstream, which explains why we get drunk so fast as well as why it makes sense to treat cancer cells directly with resveratrol.

Bathing cancer cells in wine is therefore a thing that will never, ever happen in your body. I suppose that cancer patients could be given red wine via an IV, putting it directly into the bloodstream where it would have direct access to cancer cells. Intuitively this seems like a bad idea, though I couldn’t say precisely why. I also don’t know if that’s what these scientists were getting at, or if this was just a “wonder what will happen if we try this” experiment.

It is interesting that very dilute red wine solutions — less than 1% — had specific anti-cancer effects. White wine was only effective at much higher doses – 2-5%. The effect (on specific signal transduction pathways; too complex to explain here) wasn’t the product just of resveratrol or alcohol; the authors haven’t yet figured out what specific wine components are responsible.

French hospitals include wine as part of patients’ regular diets, which I’ve always thought was a much more sensible attitude to nourishing recovery than the insipid and very non-alcoholic slop served up in most American hospitals. Sipping slowly on a glass of red is likely to do you more good than using it to tint your IV drip pink, though who knows? Maybe that is indeed the next thing.


**Because resveratrol is absorbed in the mouth, drinking wine is an excellent way to get it into your bloodstream: sipping gives it time to be absorbed. Swallowing a concentrated pill is a terrible mode of delivery. When it’s fast-tracked to the stomach — the pill bypasses those mouth membranes — very little resveratrol makes it out to where it can do any good. For a fantastic, if highly technical run-down of what we currently know about resveratrol, check out the micronutrient pages at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State.