In vino sanitas

Drink

In 1975, two years after General Pinochet seized power in a bloody coup, life expectancy in Chile was a depressing 67.2 years. By 1995 it had risen impressively to 74.8, which is pretty much what we expect to get in Britain. How can the Chileans have managed to catch up? Could it be that the blossoming Chilean wine industry has anything to do with it?

Perhaps it could. A couple of weeks ago Alan Crozier, of Glasgow University's Department of Human Nutrition, and his research partner Mike Lean gave us all a good excuse to spend the rest of our three score years and ten in a merry state of semi-inebriation. They discovered a magic ingredient called flavonols which, they think, protect us against cardio- vascular disease. Flavonols are found in wine. But not just any old wine. Flavonol content varies, as you might expect, according to grape, climate and production technique and, according to Crozier's study, it is highest in Chilean cabernet sauvignon.

Cabernet sauvignon is an extraordinarily versatile grape, grown all over the world, whose vines are easily recognised by their strong blackcurrant aroma. It's popular as a table wine and is responsible for most of the best Californian, South American and East European reds. Crozier's Safeway-sponsored survey cited Safeway's San Pedro cabernet as having the absolute highest flavonol content. In fact, any Chilean cabernet will do, but I shall begin at the beginning.

Safeway's Vina San Pedro, from Chile's Lontue Valley, comes in two vintages: 1998 at £3.99 and 1996 at £4.49. It is worth spending that extra 50p. Cabernet is usually the better for a bit of ageing and the 1996 vintage is a lot more velvety, with a rounder, happier flavour than the 1998. Not bad at all.

Three of us are blind-tasting five more wines, just to see if we can find anything we prefer. We do. Our absolute favourite turns out to be the most expensive, Vina Porta at £7.99, which a nice man at Oddbins let my friend Sarah have on a staff discount because he said she'd like it a lot more than the cheaper one she was about to buy. Perhaps he just liked Sarah. Anyway, he did good because it's the first bottle we finish, though Sarah is predictably hard to please. "Quite nice, actually," she allows, before deigning to bestow higher praise. "It's fruity and rich, quite tannic, and has a quite delicious aftertaste."

Of the cheaper ones we like El Higo. "I think this would be called quaffable," says my cousin. And it is. A simple, straightforward, fruity little wine which is everything you'd expect from a cabernet.

The real surprise is the bottle we don't like, Casablanca from the El Bosque vineyard. Raise the glass to the lips and you get the flavour I have always imagined you'd get from sucking the lead piping in Cluedo. I have never tasted lead wine before and the aftertaste is aluminium foil. It is quite extraordinary. We let it breathe for a couple of hours and the metallic taste fades considerably, but it's a disappointment nevertheless.

On the whole I'm impressed enough by the Chilean selection to be in danger of drinking more than might necessarily be beneficial to my heart. (I'm not alone: Safeway says that sales have almost trebled since Crozier's study was published.) But I'm not sure that wine is the reason the Chileans now live longer. First of all, their wines have proved so internationally popular that they now export the bulk of their produce - in Chile, in fact, per capita consumption has dropped to one quarter of its 1950 figure. Second, standards of living have risen in recent years, medical care has improved and the terrible violence of the Pinochet period is over. What Chileans do worry about is the increasing incidence of fatalities in road accidents - and if you step into the path of a juggernaut, a strong heart isn't going to help you.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think