High on white: A chemist’s take on wine

I’m a chemistry moron. In high school — those years when you’re supposed to absorb useless knowledge that later turns out to be useful — I somehow convinced my adviser (with my sparkling charm and wit) that I should take the affectionately called "sped" science class — the one reserved for jocks and short-bus riders. I learned little and got the A but have regretted it ever since. So when I needed an explanation about why white wine seems to energize me, and red wine makes me fall on my face, I turned to someone who lives science — loves it enough to major in chemistry and deals legal drugs every day. A pharmacist’s detailed, chemistry-laden explanation follows. –TE

Linking the subjective experience to bioactive effects of any food or drug product is always an exercise in scientific postulation (try playing this guy in Scrabble — TE). But the answer to Taylor’s white-versus-red question is both yes and no; these perceptions are correct, but that’s all they are — perceptions. Any alcoholic soup made from a sugar source via fermenting, brewing or distilling is classified as having a depressant effect due to alcohol. Therefore white wine is really not invigorating per se; however, it can be perceived as more so than red wine. The complex reason lies in how they’re made.

The fundamental difference between red and white wines is the use of skin and seeds during fermentation. When making red wines, both these natural ingredients stew with the juice, contributing healthy compounds such as polyphenols, tannins and resveratrol. Polyphenols originate in the skins. In other beverages such as green tea, these compounds create a calming sensation by mixing with amino acids that act as a mild anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) and counter the caffeine. But if you combine an anxiolytic with alcohol, a sedative effect occurs.

Tannins, located in both the skins and the seeds, modulate our serotonin levels and can trigger headaches and depressant characteristics in an individual sensitive to serotonin changes. Tannins are also the reason why wine enthusiasts romanticize the beverage and why reds seem abrasive to wine virgins. They give red wine its characteristic color and increase flavor but also give the mouth that puckered, dehydrated feeling. Tannins dislike water (called "hydrophobic" in chemistry circles), and they’re particularly concentrated in young, "tight" wines. But as wines age, they bind more to surrounding chemicals, change color and decrease their hydrophobic nature; thus making the tannin more acceptable to normal taste buds.

It’s easy to see why the combined effect of alcohol and tannins, as well as the mild anxiolytic effect of phenols, can contribute to the complaints associated with reds. Anyone who imbibes knows the minute you stop drinking, the "buzz kill" results in drowsiness. And the higher alcohol in New World red wines (running 14 percent-plus) doesn’t help, either.

(FYI: Sulfites don’t really factor in any of this, because few individuals are truly allergic to sulfites. Many physical results of red wine are probably side effects from some compounds as opposed to actual allergies.)

There are also the cultural aspects of white and red wines. White wines are paired mostly with easy-to-digest fare like seafood, poultry or dessert. But serve a high-alcohol Malbec with a rich porterhouse, and you have to consider the combined effect of the red wine and the digestion of a high-fat red meat. Definitely time to sleep.

So although in Taylor’s mind she’s getting a lift from white wine, it’s really only energizing relative to reds. All wines are alcoholic vehicles and, given enough time (and enough volume), they will impose their depressant effect on you — red wines just have a more romantic delivery. –RR

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