In Wine Chemistry

Resveratrol, an antioxidant commonly found in red wine, is not as beneficial to our health as once thought as found in a recent study.  Here is a quick overview of the intellectual history surrounding the health benefits of wine.

Throughout history, wine has always been considered a tool with which to manage health, whether it was prescribed as a medicine to treat a patient’s specific symptoms or simply ingested as a daily preventative measure to promote good health and stave off common ailments.

In Ancient history, just as the earth was believed to consist of four elements: earth, air,fire and water, illness was understood to be the result of an imbalanced complexion which occurred when one of the qualities of the body: cold, hot, dry and wet, was found to be out of proportion.  Antique physicians commonly advised patients to consume wines mixed with materia medica, known throughout history as theriacs, to cure their illnesses.  The alcohol of wine and beer was able to mask the flavors of the ingredients that physicians prescribed.  However, wine was not solely a flavor-masking solvent, asevidenced by an Egyptian document dating back to 1550 BC known as the Ebers Medical Papyrus.  It contains numerous suggestions for curing a loss of appetite as well as for curing “great weakness” with a bevy of curative elixirs, the majority of which feature wine as the main ingredient, leading us to believe that wine was more than just a vehicle for the meteria medica, but was also acknowledged to have its own distinct medicinal benefits as well.

As evidenced by Greece’s Hippocrates of Cos (460-370 BC) and Rome’s Galen (130-201 AD), both of whom advised that wine be administered topically as a dressing for wounds, wine was not only recommended for ingestion.  Along with its topical functions, both physicians also prescribed it as a cooling agent for fevers and as a diuretic.  Despite its powerful capacities in extreme situations, Hippocrates and Galen stressed wine’s importance in its role as a nourishing dietary beverage.

Wine’s daily benefits are outlined in detail by Rufus of Ephesus, a Greek physician from the late first century AD, who explained that wine clarifies the blood, opens up the veins, and clears obstruction of the liver.  He also highlights its power in rectifying the ingestion of bad foods.  He observes that medicinal benefits are also amplified for the older population as, following the belief necessitating the balance of the four qualities, people become colder and drier with age and are more in need of wine’s warming and moistening effects.  These daily benefits were confirmed by Marcus Porcius Cato in his 160 BC work de Agricultura when he pointed out that the proper amount of wine per year for a man should be about seven amphorae but then added the caveat that “for the slaves working in chains one must add more in proportion to the work they are doing.  It is not too much if they drink ten amphorae of wine apiece in a year.”  This idea of providing wine to maintain the health of workers is commonly found throughout antiquity and leads credence to the role of wine as a type of antique health drink.


This blog was published in The Academic Wino by Becca Yeamans

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