The researchers from the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain suggest that the benefits may be down to certain substances in red wine such as tannins, which have antioxidant properties, and resveratrol, shown to stifle tumour development and growth in experimental research.
However they caution against drinking several glasses a day in a bid to ward off lung cancer, because of the overall adverse effects on health of high alcohol consumption.
Supplements of the protective substances could be a better option but further research is needed before such products can be marketed.
"It is possible [that supplements could offer benefit] but we think there is a gap between experimental research and human studies. There is not much research on animals with these substances," Dr Alberto Ruano-Ravina, from the department of Preventive Medicine and PublicHealth, told NutraIngredients.com.
"Some British groups have started to investigate the possibility of using resveratrol supplements," he added.
Dr Ruano-Ravina's team assessed the lifestyles of 132 patients with lung cancer and 187 patients requiring minor surgery at the same hospital in north-west Spain between 1999 and 2000. Most of the patients were men and in their early 60s.
Everyone was asked about their diet, smoking habits, occupation, and the type and quantity of alcohol they drank every day, including whether they drank red, white, or rosé wine.
One in four of the cancer patients did not drink, compared with almost one in five of the routine surgery patients, report the researchers in the November issue of Thorax (59, pp 981-5).
Patients with lung cancer also drank more spirits, but beer consumption was roughly the same.
Both groups drank similar amounts of wine at around 3.5 glasses a day, but just over a third of the lung cancer patients drank red wine compared with over half of the other patients.
Compared with non-drinkers, each daily glass of red wine afforded 13 per cent protection against lung cancer. Rosé wine had no impact, and white wine seemed to have the opposite effect, although far fewer patients drank white wine. Neither beer nor sprits seemed to affect the development of cancer.
The results held true even after taking account of the amount of tobacco smoked, job type, and the total quantity of alcohol consumed.
Other studies have already demonstrated the protective effect of red wine against cancer, including ovarian and digestive cancers.
"But our study was unique as it asked about the type of wine the subjects drank. The others asked if wine was consumed but researchers extrapolated the results to the main type of wine drunk in the region," Dr Ruano-Ravina said.
"The composition of red wine is very different to white wine," he noted.