Why I am raising a nice glass of bubbly to Dry January

Wine and food are perfect partners  both to be enjoyed in moderation.

Wine and food are perfect partners  both to be enjoyed in moderation.

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Alcohol in moderation may have positive benefits, so don’t be too quick to quit wine in the New Year.

The consultant peered over those half-moon glasses that seem to be endemic at the expensive end of the medical profession and declared that he was really quite surprised by the results. ‘Your liver function tests are fine. No problem there.’ This was definitely good news. Given that I have been in the wine business for many decades I might have expected a certain amount of collateral damage from a schedule that can see me taste over 500 wines a week. Maybe I just have a resilient liver, or maybe the small changes I made to my drinking habits several years ago are having an effect.

January is the time of year when everyone seems to be on some kind of self-denial regime. Food, chocolate and alcohol all come under the spotlight as we try and make those annual ‘resolutions’ last at least a fortnight before bad habits kick back in.

‘Dry January’ is a popular option for many people, especially those in the drinks trade who perhaps need to prove to themselves and to their loved ones that they can do without a regular pre-prandial snifter followed by a glass or two of wine with their dinner. The medical evidence is that a break from alcohol consumption is good for the liver, allowing it a chance to recover from the negative effects of drinking. With several family birthdays in January, including my own, I have never been a fan of a completely dry January.

So I have adopted a more steady regime. A few years ago – when the government came up with its 14 units a week recommended limit for women – I started having one ‘dry’ day a week. That one night off broke the routine of pouring a glass of wine each night and – while I might get drummed out of the wine trade for saying so – I started to sleep and feel a whole lot better.

Gradually I extended the break to two nights and now sometimes it can spread over three nights depending on whether there is anyone home to share a glass of wine with. Of course, I still taste wine, even on a ‘dry’ day, but I spit it out, and while I don’t consciously consume any, there is a chance that some alcohol is absorbed while I sloosh wine around my mouth. Even so, my alcohol consumption is lower than it would be if I drank every night. Maybe it was this pattern of wine consumption that contributed to my surprising medical results.

Now the UK government has cut back the recommended limits for drinking, bringing men down to the same ‘safe’ limits for women – that is 14 units a week, which roughly equates to seven pints of beer, or seven small glasses of wine. These limits are lower than those in France (17.5 units for women, 26.3 units for men) and significantly lower than Spain (21.3 units for women and 35 units for men). Australia has adopted the same limits for men and women but even there the allowance is more generous. Bearing in mind the drinks industry contributes around £15.6bn annually to the UK economy in taxes and employment, I wonder whether the nanny state is starting to bite the hand that feeds it.

While I appreciate that there are regular scenes of over-indulgence on our streets which definitely need to be discouraged, I guess that very few of the people rounded up and poured into ambulances on a Saturday night have over-indulged on Chassagne-Montrachet, or even Chilean Merlot. Drinking wine with food and with company is one of life’s pleasures and should not be gathered up into the same statistics as a student’s weekend of drinking vodka shots.

There is plenty of research showing that wine is actually good for general health.

Apart from the major ‘French paradox’ results several years ago which saw red wine being adopted almost as a health drink around the world, there have been several other studies into the benefits of drinking wine. Apparently moderate wine intake can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, lengthen your life, improve libido, decrease the chance of dementia and even lower the chance of diabetes, all of which seem to have turned it into a modern-day snake oil. It all comes down to flavonoids, naturally occurring compounds found in all kinds of fruit and vegetables, but particularly in red grape skins which apparently protect the arteries and the heart from furring up.

The point about wine research is that it is well-funded by the drinks industry, while any research into the positive effects of eating, sleeping and exercising doesn’t attract the same level of funding so it is best to add a serious dose of common sense to all these results.

The overwhelming evidence is that limited consumption of wine, particularly red wine is good for general health but whether that is because it gives a general glow of well-being or acts as a medicine I shall leave to the experts.

Whatever you decide to do about drinking, or not drinking in January, take the time this month to review your wine stocks. Go through the racks with the same degree of ruthlessness that you normally reserve for your partner’s collection of old clothes.

Check out the bottles that arrived as presents. Some may be exceptionally fine, while others may not be worth ‘spending’ your alcohol allowance on. Equally, if a wine has been sitting in the rack for over a year, without the chance that it might improve, pull the cork and taste it, then decide to cook with it or pour it away.

Light white wines, usually under £8 a bottle have very little chance of improving, so dust them off and check them out. Cheapish reds won’t go downhill so rapidly, but they certainly don’t improve enormously. Keep some in the kitchen for adding to soups and stews, and earmark the rest for local events such as school raffles or church bazaars, which will be delighted to receive your cast-offs. Most wine merchants will have sales soon so make sure you have room for a few new bottles – to be enjoyed with restraint, of course.

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