The Medicine of Humanity
It seems that every single week the health benefits or concerns regarding wine are played out in the press and online. With the advent of the ‘reddit’ style news-bite internet media, articles seem to constantly pop up proclaiming the effects of red wine on longevity. Many of the people on earth who have reached the acclaimed heights of “eldest person on earth” attribute their success to the benefits of a glass of vino – including the Sardinian Sheppard Antonio Todde, who was listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest man in 2003 and died just short of his 113th birthday. Articles with headlines like “107 Year Old Man Drank Four Bottles of Wine A Day” from “LadBible” help to perpetuate a myth, naturally without giving a balanced view. Still, 4 bottles a day eh? Fair.
For every argument there is a counter, for every medical proclamation there is a stack of evidence suggesting the opposite. There can be no doubt, as my girlfriend often reminds me, that excessive drinking is seriously detrimental to health. However, if the weight of history has any say in the matter then we are far from the first generation to attribute fermented grape juice with extraordinary medicinal properties.
Evidence from as far back as 3,100BC in Egypt suggests that wine, steeped in herbs and pine resin, was used as an early form of medicinal balm. Wine is easy to drink, antiseptic, a pain killer and relatively easy to make. It can be used as a tonic as well as being mixed. No wonder it seemed miraculous to the Ancient Mind – it still is to the modern mind in the right condition!
Ancient Hindu texts go one further in their adoration of wine as a force for good. The Tantras compare wine to a divine force, stating it was “the supreme being in liquid form… the medicine of humanity… the cause of great joy… the mother of enjoyment and liberation”. High praise indeed. In a world before medicinal anaesthetic though – no wonder wine was placed so highly. As advanced Indian surgeons would use wine to avoid patients fainting or “feeling the knife”. Religion medicine and wine can be found in a variety of cultures throughout history. For instance the Jewish Talmud, written between 536 BC and 427 AD, also reference wine as medicine: “Wine taken in moderation induces appetite and is beneficial to health. Wine is the greatest of medicines. Where wine is lacking, drugs are necessary.”
In Ancient Greece too wine became a key part of a balanced health service. Hippocrates stated “wine is fit for Man in a wonderful way, provided that it is taken with good sense by the ill as well as the healthy”. It formed part of a daily ration alongside meat and bread, helping to create strong and healthy Greeks. But naturally there was nothing irresponsible about this approach; children’s wine would be diluted and warm to help the children grow and develop good complexions…
The most long-lived exponent of wine for medicine though came from the Roman Empire. Galen, surgeon to gladiators, wrote ‘De Sanitale Tuenda’ (Galen’s Hygiene) which essentially prescribed the use of wine for nearly all medicinal complaints. From stab wounds to disembowelments, wine was the answer to sow up sinews or even to soak “exposed abdominal… before putting them back into the abdominal cavity in the case of evisceration”. Galen went so fa r as to prescribe wines from different areas for different jobs – like an early sommelier pairing wines for a particularly gristly meal. These “Galenic” prescriptions would go on to dominate western medical practises until almost the 18th Century. Firmly placing in our collective consciousness the connotations of wine with health.
So what lessons can we take from the Ancient World as regards to the balance of wine and health? Through modern scientific methods we have a much greater idea of what the real benefits to our health red wine can produce. In his book ‘The Wine Diet’ Roger Corder argues that ‘certain highly tannic wines contain chemicals which can protect against the danger of heart disease, strokes, diabetes, dementia and possibly even some cancers’. But this is only on the basis of a large glass of wine a day and no more. There is also an issue with changing of wine styles which perhaps our ancestors didn’t have to deal with. With the mass adoption of wine by an increasingly affluent, wine-savvy consumer producers are constantly having to adapt. There is now an assumption red wine should be accessible to the pallet, ‘soft, fruity, easy drinking’. All words which I’m afraid to say draw groans from most producers. To make these wines you need minimal skin contact and maceration – the very thing which produces excessive tannins and ‘phenolic’. It’s the tannins and phenolic which contain the most medically helpful parts of the wine – the antioxidants. The most beneficial wines are the ones with huge gum chewing tannin levels which require a slab of protein alongside to become approachable. Then again, I guess that’s not a bad price to pay compared to the prospect of a gladiatorial encounter.