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Monday, 19 January 2015

The Joy of Self-Medication: Wine as Medicine!

Is there anything wine can't do? Wine-Searcher looks back on wine's long medical history and makes some surprising discoveries.

It seems almost weekly that some study or other pops up that suggests wine is good for our health in some way. These studies – seemingly born from a desperate human need to justify everything to ourselves – are often met with scorn as much as with optimism. But the idea of wine as an essential component of health is actually as old as wine itself.

Wine as cure

The first wines are thought to have been made some 8000 years ago, probably on the land between Asia and Europe that is now home to the country of Georgia. Greece and Egypt followed suit quickly after, and wine became an integral part of life around the Mediterranean.

The ancient Egyptians were avid winemakers, with archaeological evidence suggesting they made both reds and whites. Recently, scientific research has shown that some of these wines were infused with herbs – not just any herbs, but the kind of herbs that were used at the time to treat illnesses.

The obvious conclusion is that wine was used as a kind of agent for the administration of this medicine. The compounds in coriander, sage and pine resin (among other things) dissolved effectively in the alcohol, which also served as a painkiller and a preservative for the medicine itself. However, the use of wine as a painkiller in Ancient Egypt was somewhat outshone by its role as a pain-giver: there are depictions in tombs of lavish parties and their unpleasant after-effects on the human body.

Wine was also widespread in ancient Greece. The famous physician Hippocrates – who was the first to suggest that illness was natural and not caused by the wrath of the gods – was a proponent of wine as medicine. He prescribed it as a remedy for everything from diarrhoea to the pain of childbirth, even suggesting it as a superior alternative to water for washing out wounds. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder agreed, claiming that wine "delights the stomach, and soothes care and affliction".

Various religious texts also suggest wine as a cure. The Talmud, a key text of Judaism, claims that "wherever wine is lacking, medicines become necessary" and, in the Bible, Saint Paul suggests that Timothy "use a little wine for thy stomach's sake".
Wine as alternative

Throughout the ages, physicians continued to recommend wine as a cure for all manner of maladies, and particularly those pertaining to digestion. At the same time, wine became a preventative measure against disease as well: along with beer, it was often safer to drink than the filthy water.

If you have read stories set in major cities in 19th-Century Europe, you can only imagine the smells – for a truly sensory read I recommend Patrick Suskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. At the time, the murky Thames, the smelly Seine and the dirty Danube were probably not the cleanest sources of drinking water, but people drank from them and died – of cholera, of typhoid, of dysentery. Wine, abundant upon the continent of Europe, was wet, tasty and – most importantly – devoid of sewage, making it the safe choice for thirsty individuals.

Wine as tonic

It's kind of a fun factoid to whip out at your next wine tasting that Coca-Cola is based on Bordeaux wine. Well, kind of; the product in question was called Vin Mariani, a mixture of wine and coca leaves. The alcohol from the wine extracted the cocaine from the leaves, giving the beverage its desired effect, ostensibly restoring health and vitality. It was enjoyed by many: Ulysses S. Grant, Alexander Dumas, Thomas Edison and even the Pope all reportedly enjoyed the drink's, erm, pep.

In 1885, one John S. Pemberton made his own version in Atlanta, Georgia, calling it Pemberton's French Wine Coca. Unfortunately, prohibition came to Atlanta not long after, and the wine had to be replaced with carbonated water and kola nuts. And that is how Coca-Cola came to be.
The idea of wine as a health drink or tonic was widespread throughout Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries, even without the addition of cocaine. Popular threads began to run through society about what drink was good for what complaint. Could Anjou cure heartburn? Would a half bottle of Médoc a day ease diarrhea? Countless studies were undertaken examining the effect of wine on iron intake, digestion, appetite, longevity, cholesterol levels and many other things besides. Add to that naturally ingrained cultural beliefs about wine in everyday life and, holy moly, you've got yourself a whole wine-as-medicine movement.

This may sound mildly insane, but these claims are always backed up with (admittedly tenuous) science. And they persevere today. For example, you've likely heard of the French Paradox: the idea that, despite a traditional diet that is full of meat, cheese, cream and butter, French people have a relatively low incidence of heart disease.

This anomaly was linked with red-wine consumption on U.S. television in a 60 Minutes bulletin in 1991. This had an incredible effect on red wine sales in the U.S. which soared following the segment, which is not surprising: drinking red wine daily is almost universally preferable to jogging while not eating cheese.

Resveratrol is another of these supposedly "health-giving" phenols present in red wines. The substance is found in red wines in varying amounts depending on grape variety and maceration time, and could cure cancer or prevent heart disease but – let's face it – probably won't.
The compound is particularly high in the Muscadine family of grapes, which are most prevalent along the east coast of the U.S. Here, mom-and-pop wineries will sell their wine with the promise of good health rather than good taste: you have to find something that will make people drink Muscadine wine, I guess.

I can get behind the idea of wine as tonic – a sip of Riesling alongside my macaroni cheese, or maybe a nice glass of Syrah on a cold evening is sure to lift my spirits and increase my enjoyment of life. And that's enough for me: I can do without the stronger, glossier hair, and I'll take an aspirin if I really need to.

Source: http://www.wine-searcher.com/

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