Estonian Wine Against Alzheimer’s

Priit Pedastsaar is a doctoral student at the Estonian University of Life Sciences and the University of Tartu. This article earned him the second prize in the popular science articles contest organised by UT and supported by the Estonian Ministry of Science and Education and the Archimedes Foundation.

Hirv-still-life with grapes

Alfred Hirv (1880-1918). Still-life with grapes. Image credit: Art Museum of Estonia / Wikimedia Commons.

After the “French Paradox” was formulated, red wine made of grapes has been considered to be a kind of remedy. When consumed in moderation it improves mental performance and offers protection against cardiovascular diseases.

Now there appears to be a possibility that wines of an even healthier constitution could be produced in Estonia. Until now Estonia has never been a country renowned for its wines. Harsh Estonian winters turn cultivating common grapes into a complicated process, but the common grape could be made more winter resistant by crossing it with Amur grape so that we can have hybrid grapes.

In addition to being cold-proof, this northeast Chinese ancestor of the grape contains many interesting compounds with a number of scientifically proven useful effects. Moreover, our long summer days and comparatively low temperatures allow plants to stack up a larger amount of beneficial stuff than they could in their native countries.

A different kind of fermentation

Scientists at the Estonian University of Life Sciences do not limit themselves just to raising interesting breeds, but they have also started several experiments that strive to further increase useful compounds in the wines produced in Estonia.

For example, it’s been noted that the content of amurensin G, a compound that can hinder the progress of Alzheimer’s disease, could be augmented by using specific but simple non-traditional fermentation practices that are not suitable for mass production because of additional cost in time.

It has also been discovered that grapes may not become chemically mature at the same time they become ripe for harvesting. Maybe the harvesting time for the “healthy grapes” starts after the first cold snap is over?

Northern wines could also be noted for their lower alcohol concentration. Alcohol is the precise component that differentiates wine from a real health drink. In our climatic conditions, plants cannot accumulate the amount of sugar required for producing the familiar 12 per cent of alcohol. So natural wines produced in Estonia contain only 7–9 per cent of alcohol. The lower the alcohol, the healthier the wine!

Wine or juice?

Then why not just produce grape juice? This is because the fermentation process makes many compounds useful to our health more chemically active, and thus more beneficial to the human organism. Maybe wines of low alcohol content but rich in bioactive compounds, made of hybrid grapes, could be the next functional food that improves Estonians’ health, and after a couple of decades we could talk about the “Estonian Paradox”?

It’s also nice to know that this time technical conditions are not hindering the experiments. Experimental gardens have already been built and there is top quality machinery in the laboratories of the Estonian University of Life Sciences and the University of Tartu that allows for highly precise detection of hundreds of potentially interesting compounds, as well as prevention of unwanted components. The project is a collaboration between the two universities, and some entrepreneurs have been roped in, too.

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