Wine, said Louis Pasteur, is the most healthful and the most hygienic of all beverages. Since antiquity, wine was believed to stimulate the appetite, aid digestion, and act as a general energiser in debility, and was prescribed for practically every complaint. In Bacchic Medicine Harry W Paul, professor of history at the university of Florida, charts in scholarly, though somewhat confusing and repetitive detail, the rise and fall of the French love affair with vinothérapie.
This affair began in earnest at the beginning of the 19th century, when scientific theories from Britain provided evidence that wine, the gift of Bacchus, could indeed be a miracle cure. Quality and age were all important, and wines from different vineyards had to be matched to the temperament of the particular patient. Thus physicians required the skills of masters of wine as well as of medicine, and medical societies debated the respective virtues of reds and whites and the merits of burgundies, champagnes, and the like. Recommended dosage, such as three to six goblets with meals or one to three glasses of champagne five times a day, would now be considered somewhat excessive.
By the end of the century “the mighty remedy had fallen rapidly from its perch of therapeutic domination,” as medicinal drugs took over and society was alarmed by the increasing threat of alcoholism. Experts argued that wine was different from other alcohols: it contained useful chemicals and did not cause diseases like cirrhosis.
By the 20th century the industry was in the doldrums: a market flooded with mediocre wines, vineyards ravaged by phylloxera, and a treacherous medical profession emphasising the rising tide of alcoholism. The doctors of Bordeaux and the Société de Médecine de Paris hit back by reporting that up to 60 cl a day (about 7 units) of light, natural wine cut with water was good for health and contained easily assimilable chemicals that could fight disease. Alcoholism resulted from “industrial” alcohols such as beer and spirits, and not from grape alcohol.
The wine glut continued after the first world war, and prohibition in the United States didn’t help, but modern physico-chemical theories demonstrated that the content of wine was comparable to that of a living cell and nutritional value similar to that of human breast milk. Additional selling points, such as the presence of vitamins, and even mild radioactivity, failed to put wine back on the therapeutic agenda. A last gasp of recent times has been “the French paradox,” mightily promoted by the media, that the French have low levels of coronary artery disease in spite of a high fat diet. Red wine especially contains antioxidants, cholesterol lowering agents, and clot-busting substances that might be protective. But then if wine is that good, why do only 28% of French people drink it regularly?
A.Paton (British Medical Journal)
Bacchic Medicine: Wine and Alcohol Therapies from Napoleon to the French Paradox
Harry W Paul
Editions Rodopi BV, €30/$28/£28.70, pp 341
ISBN 90 420 1111 4