The secret of a long and healthy life is somewhere in these hills. Maria Pio Fusi looks out over the olive groves and vines owned by her son in the Chianti region of Tuscany and smiles.
"Our doctors tell us to drink a little wine every day, one or two glasses for our health," she says, as a pensioner in a place where life expectancy is among the highest in Europe. "Wine is the secret of life."
Scientists have agreed with this notion for the past 20 years, and even identified a miracle ingredient in red wine that makes people healthier. But now a paper has been published insisting that resveratrol - as it is called - actually has no effect at all.
"Red wine will not make you live longer," screamed one headline, only months after different scientists said it could help us live to 150. This is confusing enough to make anyone reach for the bottle. So which is true? Is red wine good for you or not?
Frankly, this is a matter close to my heart. As a lover of the stuff, I need to know as much as you probably do. I want to hear what the scientist who wrote that paper has to say for himself. I'm also prepared to pursue this story fearlessly and selflessly all the way to the source - even if it means travelling through a landscape of staggering beauty, among the rolling hills of Tuscany, to reach the little medieval market town of Greve in Chianti, 20 miles south of Florence.
This is where Signora Fusi's son owns a vineyard, with views down over the tumbling terracotta roofs of the town. They produce Chianti Classico, the deep and rich wine that makes your soul sing. The local olive oil is famously pure. The meat is wonderful. There are black and white truffles to be found and savoured. Small wonder that discerning researchers chose to come here to study the drinking habits and health of the older folk.
Back in 1998, they took urine samples from 783 men and women over the age of 65 in this town and a nearby village and examined them for levels of resveratrol. This is one of the natural chemicals found in the skin of the red grape and it is an antioxidant, which neutralises the oxygen molecules that damage human cells. The claims made for resveratrol have become increasingly bold in recent years - including that it can boost memory, arrest the failure of eyesight and hearing, lower cholesterol, restore muscle strength, reduce the signs of ageing and even prolong life. All of which listed together makes it sound like the modern equivalent of Doctor Snakeoil's Miraculous Cure-All Tonic.
But these claims are based on tests with mice, not people. The team led by Prof Richard Semba of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore wanted to see the effects on humans, so they compared the urine samples with the results of a detailed health survey that the same pensioners took three times in nine years. They expected those with more resveratrol to live longer, suffer less inflammation and be less likely to suffer from cancer or heart disease.
"We were expecting a connection because that is what you hear, that's a lot of the hype," says Prof Semba. "But in retrospect it was a leap of faith to go from tests on mice and cellular models to expect an effect like this in humans. It was a complete wash, actually. There was no association."
That was bad publicity for the resveratrol nutritional supplement industry, which is worth $30 million in the US alone. To be fair, a glass of wine might only give you one milligram of the stuff, but a pill can easily contain 250mg. But in terms of getting it through wine, is Prof Semba's study the definitive verdict?
"Yes," he says. "It was very expensive to do these measurements and it has taken us a long time. I'm not sure if anyone else is going to try to do the study again in a different population."
If resveratrol is not the miracle ingredient in wine, is there one still to be found? "That's a possibility, yes. Wine is a very complex beverage. There are probably a lot more secrets to it than we know."
Robert Corder, professor of experimental therapeutics at Queen Mary, University of London, is not at all surprised by the new research. "The levels of resveratrol in many red wines are often undetectable and negligible. It's frustrating that everybody has been misled for so long, but let's have a watershed moment and kick it into touch once and for all."
Prof Corder is the author of 'The Red Wine Diet', which sounds perfect to me, but the title is misleading. "I am a big fan of wine but I strongly advocate that you should drink less, of better quality."
He insists that the pips and not the skins of the grapes are the source of good health. They release compounds called flavonols, which evolve into molecules that improve blood pressure and blood flow and are also antioxidants, fighting cell damage.
Unfortunately, to get any benefit you need to be drinking wines fermented longer using traditional techniques and that are rich in tannins - and therefore a little too harsh for normal British tastes: "Your average supermarket wine does not have enough flavonols in it to confer any kind of health benefit."
The other problem is that Britons have become so convinced that red wine is somehow medicinal that we are glugging back too much of it. The glasses served in pubs have got bigger and the wines have got stronger over the same period that health claims have become more forceful.
"There's a lot of people who think half a bottle of wine a day is a healthy amount," says Prof Corder. "It isn't. Over-consumption of alcohol of any type is universally associated with increased blood pressure, increased risk of stroke and of cancer."
But what about the Italians? They drink far more wine than us per person - 37.63 litres a year to our 20.3 litres - and they also live longer. The answer is that they drink a little every day, rather than saving it all up for the weekend and going on a binge, says Prof Corder.
"If you have one or two small glasses at lunchtime, the alcohol has cleared your system without reaching levels that do harm, before you have the same in the evening," he says. "If you try to put the same amount down you immediately after work with no food, as we often do here, then the consequence is a very high level of alcohol in the blood - which is when you start to modify proteins and DNA and raise your blood pressure."
His wisdom is confirmed by one doctor in Greve in Chianti, who says that, yes, he does tell his patients to take a little wine every day. It's what the Bible says, too. But he doesn't want to be named or say anything else, grazie.
So I retire to the main piazza, where a former lawyer called Lara Gasperini has owned the bar and restaurant La Terrazzo Oliosteria for 10 years. She inhales from the deep, wide glass I have been given and knows immediately what I am drinking. "It is a Chianti Classico Podere Campriano. It is an organic wine made of 100 per cent sangiovese grapes and just up there".
She points away, over the buildings. "There on the hill is where this wine is made. They make a very clean wine. They are perfect in the vineyards and in the cellar. Would you like to go there?"
She makes a call and, within moments of finishing the last mouthful, I am climbing the hill past the vines on which the same grapes were grown. There Maria Pio Fusi is waiting on the terrace.
"We drink only when we eat," she says. Medically, this is crucial, as the food counters the effects of the alcohol, but she has different reasons for doing it. "You've got to drink anyway, so why not wine? You can't have a beefsteak or a prosciutto ham with water. The wine is a companion to the meat and it gives you a much better flavour."
Since the scientists can't agree on why red wine is good for you, what does this 69-year-old vineyard matriarch, steeped in a life of wine, think? "It makes you happy. Not to drink too much, but if you drink just enough it makes you feel strong, good, right."
They start drinking young around here according to Angela Saltafuori, who runs tours of the best small vineyards in the area and knows the wine culture intimately. "I used to drink wine since I was five years old. My grandmother gave me at 5pm the bread wet with wine and sugar on the top. Every day. Then she send me to sleep. Now she would be in prison!"
The scientific study showed that most people were drinking between one and three glasses of wine a day, every day. The quality is far better than it used to be and the nature of the wine forces people to drink less and take food at the same time, she says.
"Sangiovese is a very difficult grape. It has more tannins and is more acidic than others," she says. "The Chianti was born to go with food. It is almost impossible to appreciate without something to eat. You need something that is oily or fat because it cleans your mouth. Otherwise it is too harsh."
What does she think about resveratrol? "In Tuscany, nobody knows about resveratrol. I just discovered it myself. I think it is an American idea."
Perhaps only Americans would seriously believe that the secret of a long and healthy life could be reduced to a pill, she says. "In Tuscany, we look at the whole style of life, which is more relaxed. The people eat lots of fruit and vegetables. The olive oil is also rich in anti-oxidants. We have a lot of nature, and a better relationship with the wine."
So the secret of a long and healthy life, as far as a Tuscan wine expert is concerned, is to relax, stay close to nature, enjoy lots of sunshine, fruit and vegetables and extra virgin olive oil, and drink a little wine every day with food. In other words, to live in Tuscany? "Si! Of course. Why not?"
Because some of us are not so lucky. We have to live in a land where the only warm feeling you get some days is from the contents of a bottle. But while the scientists continue to search for the elusive secret of red wine, maybe there is something we can learn from the drinkers of Greve in Chianti.
Never drink too much, but drink enough every day to make you feel better. Get that right and you really won't care if red wine is good for you or not.
The Telegraph, London