The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. But did you know that wine is also a part of this popular eating plan? Let’s talk about the best wine for the Mediterranean diet!
As a dietitian, I’m focused on sharing great information with people for healthy aging. And I especially love to share positive info – like what you CAN have on a diet vs what you can’t!
So let’s explore the Mediterranean diet, its health benefits, and the best wines to pair with this amazing eating plan. Plus, we’ll cover what other alcoholic beverages you can drink on the Mediterranean diet, and the importance of when and how much you drink.
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What is the Mediterranean Diet?
You’ve probably heard of the Mediterranean diet, but maybe you still have questions? I’ll give you a brief primer here.
The Mediterranean diet is based on the cuisine of the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. These include France, Italy, Greece, Spain, and many others.
Decades ago, scientists noticed that cardiovascular disease was less common in these Mediterranean countries compared with the United States. A part of the cause was thought to be the dietary differences between these countries and the U.S.
The diets in these countries tend to be plant-based. They focus on fresh fruit and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats (like nuts and olive oil), whole grains, and yes, the occasional glass of wine!
In comparison, a standard American diet (aptly nicknamed SAD) is high in processed foods with lots of added fat, sugar, and salt. This diet is not doing your health any favors!
Additionally, there is a focus on sociability (family or communal style meal prep and eating) in the Mediterranean diet. This appears to be part of why this eating pattern has so many health benefits. And this is also where wine plays a role in your healthy lifestyle!
Now that you know what it is, let’s talk about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
Did you know that the Mediterranean diet has lots of positive health benefits? These include effects on (1)
Why does the Mediterranean diet have so many health benefits? Because it focuses on whole foods vs. processed foods.
It encourages lots of fruits and veggies, which are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other plant compounds that are great for your health (more on that below).
It also includes sources of healthy fats like olive oil, fatty fish, nuts, and seeds. And these are great for your health too!
Environmental Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
Concerned about the environment? There is also an environmental benefit to following a plant-based diet like the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet focuses on plant-based food and is sustainable with low environmental impacts compared with other food patterns (1).
Wine and the Mediterranean Diet
Moderate wine consumption is considered a staple of the Mediterranean lifestyle. It adds a delicious and refreshing element to meals.
It is also part of the sociability aspect of the diet. Generally, wine is consumed with meals and with others. And both of these factors may be part of why wine appears beneficial to health.
However, there are some direct health benefits from wine too. Let’s review!
Health Benefits of Wine
Are you curious how the health benefits of wine were discovered?
Scientists noticed that while folks in France ate a diet fairly high in fat, they had very low rates of heart disease. (This came to be known as the French Paradox).
And they wondered, is it the wine?
So research was done specifically on wine, and yes, it has been found to have many potential health benefits. (However, we now suspect that it may not be the wine itself, but more the lifestyle of the Mediterranean region in total as mentioned above.)
What are the health benefits of wine? Wine is high in antioxidant compounds and appears to benefit longevity (2). When consumed in moderation, it is protective against heart disease and may have beneficial effects on the risk of developing diabetes (3).
What gives wine these amazing health benefits? Wine, particularly red wine, contains a group of antioxidants known as polyphenols.
Polyphenols are the plant compounds mentioned above that are also found in fruits and veggies. (Since wine comes from grapes we can understand how this makes sense).
One of the primary polyphenols found in red wine is resveratrol, which comes from grape skins. It has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Resveratrol may also help to lower levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol and raise levels of good (HDL) cholesterol (4).
However, according to the Mayo Clinic, there is conflicting research on the effects of resveratrol. Some studies show it reduces the risk of inflammation and blood clots (which decreases the risk of heart disease), but other studies show no benefit (5).
To Wine or Not to Wine
It’s important to note that excessive alcohol consumption can have detrimental effects on health and should be avoided. You should definitely not start drinking wine (or any alcohol) for heart health.
A great deal of evidence points to the link between drinking your wine with your meal, in company, and in moderation to get the health benefits.
So with all that in mind, assuming you choose to drink wine, how do you select the best wine for the Mediterranean diet?
With so many different types of wine, choosing the perfect one to complement your Mediterranean-style meal can be challenging. Let’s talk about some options!
Best Wine for the Mediterranean Diet: Difference Between Red and White Wine
So if you do choose to drink wine as part of your Mediterranean diet and lifestyle, which kind of wine is the best? Well, that will mainly depend on your taste preferences. While red wine gets most of the glory, both red and white wine appear to have benefits for heart health (6).
And there are both red and white wines that pair well with Mediterranean cuisine.
But let’s talk about our red wine options first.
Best Red Wine for the Mediterranean Diet
As mentioned above, there’s been a great deal of research on the health benefits of red wine. As we know, it contains lots of polyphenols (in fact, 10 times more polyphenols than white wine! 6).
And there are many different red wines that pair well with Mediterranean food. These include a variety of wines traditional to Mediterranean countries. Below are a sampling of some popular red wine options.
Types of Red Wine
Originally from France in the Burgundy region, Pinot Noir is now grown throughout the world. Even though it is difficult to grow, it is the most popular light red across the globe. Pinot Noir pairs easily with a variety of foods (7).
A hardy grape, created by the chance crossing of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes in southern France, it too now grows throughout the world (8).
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular red wine in the world. It is ideal with red meat due to its bold, rich taste, but can also pair well with salmon, cheese, and chocolate (9).
Made from the Sangiovese grape, Chianti comes from the Tuscany region of Italy. It is a medium-bodied red wine. It will of course pair well with Italian food, such as pasta with red sauce, but with plenty of other foods as well (10).
From the Piedmont region in northern Italy, Barolo is known as “the wine of kings”. It’s made from the Nebbiolo grape. Barolo is full-bodied so pairs well with steak but also with veggies (11).
Made primarily from the Tempranillo grape, this wine is from the Rioja region of North Central Spain. It can be medium to full-bodied and has a slightly fruitier taste than a Cabernet. It is also produced in white and rosé varieties.
Young versions of Rioja pair well with savory meat and cheese, and the more mature varieties pair well with heavy stews or grilled meats (12).
Syrah is originally from France. When it was grown in Australia it was called Shiraz, but it is actually the same grape and the same wine. Syrah is one of the darkest red wines and so has the highest content of antioxidants. It pairs well with meat, and with other foods also (13).
Merlot is the second most popular red in the US (after Cabernet Sauvignon). Originally from the Bourdeaux region of France, it too is now grown throughout the world. A bit milder than a Cabernet Sauvignon, it pairs well with poultry and tomato-based pasta dishes (14).
One of my personal favorites, Malbec too is a grape originally from France. However, it has gained in popularity in recent years as an Argentinian wine. It pairs well with almost any food, making it very versatile (15).
But what if you’re really a white wine type of gal (or guy)?
Best White Wine for the Mediterranean Diet
As mentioned, white wine does contain polyphenols, although in lower amounts than red wine. It can however still have some heart-health benefits. And rosé wines fall in the middle.
Similar to red wines, there are traditional white wines in the Mediterranean region. As a general rule, white wine can be a good choice to pair with seafood or lighter dishes (16). Some popular white wine options are listed below.
Types of White Wine
The most popular white wine on the planet. Originally from France, because it grows relatively easily, it has spread around the globe.
Lighter versions pair well with fresh cheese or seafood. Medium varieties go well with poultry or pork. Full-bodied types can hold up well with grilled meat or entrees with heavy cream sauces (17).
One of the most prominent wines in Greece, Assyrtiko originates from the volcanic island of Santorini. A very versatile grape, it can be made into very dry or very sweet varieties of wine. Assyrtiko obviously pairs well with Greek food and also with seafood (18).
Originally from the Bourdeaux region in France, this grape migrated north to the Loire Valley and became popular as Sancerre (named for the region where it is produced instead of the type of grape).
Originally from France (where it is known as Pinot Gris), this wine became popular as Pinot Grigio in Northern Italy. In fact, it has become the most popular white wine in Italy and the most popular imported white wine in the US (21).
Pinot Grigio pairs well with lighter dishes like seafood, salads, and risotto (22).
But what if you prefer beer or cocktails?
What about other alcoholic drinks?
Research is mixed on the benefits of beer and spirits vs wine (6). While alcohol itself can have some heart-protective effects, it is generally believed that red wine is above other options. This is likely due to the polyphenols (23).
However, any benefits of wine or other alcohol are greater in combination with a healthy diet and lifestyle (24).
And it’s clear that moderation is key no matter your beverage of choice. The amount you drink is definitely a factor. Let’s discuss!
Enjoying Wine in Moderation
While wine can be beneficial to health, if you don’t currently drink wine, you shouldn’t start.
If you do already enjoy the occasional glass of wine, know that it can be a healthy part of the Mediterranean diet.
Like many foods on the Mediterranean diet, wine contains antioxidants that are good for you. However, excessive wine (or other alcohol) consumption can have negative health effects, including an increased risk of certain cancers, liver damage, and addiction.
So moderate alcohol consumption is key if you choose to drink wine or other alcoholic beverages. But how much wine is ok? The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 1 drink per day for women and 1-2 for men (25).
And also according to the AHA, 1 drink is 4 oz of wine, 12 oz of beer, or 1.5 oz liquor.
And drinking none all week and 5 glasses on Friday doesn’t count! This is considered binge drinking, and does not have the same health benefits (6).
In addition, there appears to be a link between drinking your wine with your meal (Mediterranean style) and the health benefits (23).
Further, it may be that wine drinkers make better dietary choices overall than those who drink other types of alcoholic beverages (23).
But a healthful diet is the key. It is still best to have an extra serving of blueberries (or green tea) vs. adding wine to your diet!
Best Wine for the Mediterranean Diet: Summary
Wine can be a flavorful and healthy addition to a Mediterranean-style meal. When it comes to choosing the best wine to pair with this diet, either red or white wine can be a great choice depending on the meal and your taste preferences.
In general, you can’t go wrong if you pair wine from the same country as the food you are eating. They are naturally compatible!
Ultimately, the key is to enjoy your wine in moderation. Choose a wine that complements the flavors and ingredients of your Mediterranean-style meal, and enjoy it with friends and family!
Read more about the Mediterranean diet and other healthful eating plans!
Kate is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and certified yoga instructor with a Master’s in Public Health. She loves to share what she has learned about nutrition and yoga to help people live healthier, more balanced lives. When not working on this blog or teaching yoga, Kate is usually spending time with family and friends or reading a good book.