A Historical Perspective on Health Benefits of Wine

The following is a guest post by Emily Kate from the History of Wine Channel on YouTube.  Please see the end of this post for her full bio.

UPDATE 06/02/2014:  Please see the end of this post for a video discussing this very topic!

A recent study indicates that resveratrol, an antioxidant commonly found in red wine, is not as beneficial to our health as once thought.  In light of the recent observations and the subsequent reaction within the wine community, I’d like to give 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, as Medieval_wine_conservation_the_academic_winoevidenced 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.

The aspect of wine’s health history that I find most interesting and most pertinent to the recent study concerning resveratrol, is the historical focus on white wines.  Resveratrol is found in tannic red wines, and is the element previously accepted as the healthiest aspect of wine, however, ancient writers often wrote about the benefits of white wines.  Corippus wrote of wines served in Constantinople around 566 AD and described the Ascalon wines as white and exceedingly light.  These same Ascalon wines were the focus of medicinal elixirs including those administered to Emperor Julian by his personal physician Oribasius (c.320 – 400 AD).  He was not alone, as Cassius Felix’s Latin translations of Greek medical selections (447 AD) called for Ascalon wine as well, as did the writings of Alexander of Tralles (b. 525 AD).

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Considering the contemporary belief that red wines have greater health benefits, it is notable that the ancient authors and physicians felt differently.  In De Vinis, a text written in the late Middle Ages and ascribed to Arnau de Vilanova, it is explained that there are two categories of wine with which to create theriacs, “white and good.”  Simple, light white wine was thought to best conduct the drug’s properties and was, therefore, best suited for medicine.  “Good” wine often was clarified to mean “Greek” which referred, in many cases, to sweet and strong wines such as vernage which is also a white wine, but one of stronger character.  Unless the body’s weakness necessitated their drug-like properties, these wines were thought to be too strong.  They were believed to damage the patient as they couldn’t properly serve as the vehicle for the substances added to them.  “Good” wines were, however, thought to serve certain purposes with different alterations, such as performing as a laxative with the addition of prunes.  Due to their high nutrient levels, these “good” wines were thought to produce good blood, regenerate the natural virtues and strengthen the constitution of weakened bodies.  This work, De Vinis, went so far as to advise that people avoid tannic wines, despite any value they may have.

Wines have always been believed to provide health benefits, whether they acted as topical or ingested medicines or functioned as historical health drinks, but the belief that only tannic wines provide benefits is a modern concept that has just been shaken by this most recent study.  White wines were seen as powerful health tonics in the past, so perhaps these findings concerning resveratrol will lead us back to appreciating the benefits of white wines as praised by Oribasius, Cassius Felix, Alexander of Tralles and Arnau de Vilanova.

Emily Kate is a History student at Columbia University with a specialization in the history of wine.  In addition to her studies at Columbia, she has attended the Wine and Spirit Education Trust: International Wine Center where she has earned her Intermediate and Advanced certification with honors.  Emily has interned at wineries in the United States and Australia, and will learn about the retail aspect of the wine industry this summer in New York City.  She has combined her passion for wine,education and technology to create her YouTube channel, History of Wine and the Vine

UPDATE 06/02/2014:  Here is the video related to this article:

Sources/Further Reading:

Cato, Marcus Porcius, Marcus Terentius Varro, William Davis Hooper, and Harrison Boyd Ash. On agriculture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1934.

Cyril P. Bryan, trans. The Papyrus Ebers.  London, England: The Garden City Press, 1930.

Grant, Mark.  Galen on Food and Diet.  London, England:  Taylor and Francis, 2002.

Lesko, Leonard.  “Egyptian Wine Production During the New Kingdom” in The Origins and Ancient History of Wine ed. McGovern, Fleming and Katz (New York: Overseas Publishing Company, 1996) 215-232.

Park, Alice.  “Why the Doctor Might Be Wrong About the Good in Red Wine.”  Time Magazine, May 12, 2014.

Philip Mayerson, “The Use of Ascalon Wine in the Medical Writers of the Fourth to the Seventh Centuries” in Food in the Ancient World from A to Z (1993) 169-73.

Unwin, Tim. “Wine and the Vine: An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade.” Routledge:  New York, 1991.


2 comments for “A Historical Perspective on Health Benefits of Wine

  1. RoseLee
    May 21, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    This is an amazing post! I had no idea that wine was used this way throughout history..

    • Becca
      May 22, 2014 at 9:36 am

      Thanks for reading and commenting, RoseLee! It’s such an interesting topic that, like you, I didn’t realize was en vogue even so long ago!

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