Naughty But Nice

Doctors throughout history have recommended wine for good health


Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) on wine: “The best is Bordeaux, since doctors prescribe it”

“Your very good health!” The traditional salute as you raise your glass has never been more under pressure, has never seemed so purely verbal a formula. Wine (or rather alcohol more generally) is one of those substances (along with red meat, dairy products, sugar, bacon, and sunlight) which are now routinely stigmatised as harmful to human health.

But it was not always so. Our forebears saw in wine not only solace at the end of a hard day, or a companion to celebration at the end of a good one. They believed it had medicinal properties. Unlike water, wine was sterile and safe to drink. It might be used to disinfect wounds. Galen used it in this way, even washing the organs of injured gladiators in wine before returning them to the body. Wine could also be used as a mild anaesthetic.

Not everyone subscribed to the belief, of course. Flaubert mocked the notion in his Dictionnaire des idées reçues: “Wines. Subject of conversation among men. The best is Bordeaux, since doctors prescribe it. The worse it is, the more natural it is.” Burgundians agree here, referring to Bordeaux as the “wine of the sick”, their own product by contrast being “the wine of the healthy”.

Nevertheless, the belief — perhaps one should say prejudice — endures in France, where hotels in wine-growing areas offer treatments using the by-products of wine — crushed pips apparently make a marvellous exfoliant and restore the complexion. Bordeaux wines are sometimes used in baths, or administered in the form of intravenous injections (this seems very dangerous), or even as rectal suppositories. Oral administration, by contrast, seems very passé. Some years ago Emmerick Maury examined the therapeutic virtues of wine methodically in Soignez-vous par le vin. Bordeaux was indicated for allergies, anemia, throat infections, anxiety, lack of appetite, bronchial conditions, depression, diabetes, diarrhoea, purpura, tuberculosis, typhoid, and hives, amongst other ailments. The medicinal uses of Burgundy are apparently less specific and targeted. Maury recommends them in cases of obesity, hypotension, cardiac weakness, demineralisation, and haemorrhages; and also as a consolation for the elderly.

But Burgundy too has in the past found a place in the pharmacopia. History relates at least one distinguished example of its use in a cure. In 1694 Louis XIV was suffering badly from gout (hardly surprising, given his diet). His physician, Fagon, had diagnosed the culprit to be the wines of Champagne, to which the king was deeply attached. (Champagne was not, of course, at that stage a sparkling wine, and was as likely to have been red or rosé as white.) Repeatedly Fagon pleaded with the king to give over this harmful drink, and instead to have only Burgundy served at his table.

The doctor’s advice fell on deaf ears, until an especially painful fit of the gout shook the king out of his accustomed ways:

Toward the end of these throes of gout, whose pain and discomfort persuaded the king better than all the reasons I had often had the honour of recalling to him in hopes of obliging him to give up the wine of Champagne and to drink old Burgundy wine, he resolve to conquer the injury it cause to his taste and to try to see if he could accustom himself to it. I heard this announcement with great joy, and I did not in the least doubt that he was absolutely resigned to it, knowing with what resolve his heroic courage made him persevere in courses of action that he thought the best and on which he had decided himself without allowing himself to be disturbed by difficulties.

Ah, who can praise too highly the heroism of kings, who don’t flinch even from hardships as gruelling as substituting Burgundy for Champagne!

The reasons for Fagon’s prescription of Burgundy make interesting reading. “The smoothness of the good wines of Burgundy”, he wrote, “caused by the power of the vital spirits, gives them a taste by which the tongue is gently caressed, as soothing for the nerves as it is tasteless to the mouth.” Tastelessness is an odd virtue in a wine. Perhaps the “old Burgundy” that Fagon prescribed was so old that it had reached that stage of advanced maturity when it was incapable of being tested by the nerves of taste. Odd if so: even in the 18th century it would have been unusual to keep even the most highly regarded Burgundy for longer than four or five years.

Did Fagon’s remedy work? There is no reason to think so, although apparently Louis persevered in his noble abstention from Champagne, the curative powers exerted by Burgundy became legendary, and Fagon had a street named after him in Nuits-St-Georges. A full century later, when the revolutionaries were selling property in Burgundy which they had sequestrated, a garbled version of the story of Fagon’s cure was used to entice potential purchasers:

Louis XIV, having been treated for a fistula, was reduced to a deplorable and disturbing state of weakness. The physicians gathered to find a way to revive his strength. They were of the opinion that the most effective way was to choose the most excellent old wines of the Côtes de Nuits and de Beaune. Some were purchased, the patient availed himself of them, and his health was promptly restored. That of Romanée indisputably worked the greatest wonders.

It is always unwise to take at their word people who have something to sell. Nevertheless, some modern doctors have taken a stand against the health fascists. With Christmas approaching, I leave you with the wise and comfortable words of J.-P. Broustet, of the Hôpital Cardiologique in Pessac, who concludes an article on wine and health as follows (I preserve his charmingly francophone English):

The vasodilating effects of a good red wine are strongly linked to the pleasure of educating the nose and palate, the wine selection, the knowledge of its vineyard, and the degustation in a warm and enjoyable company. Respect for the good and honestly made wines is the best protection against adverse effects of common drinks and spirits: dilated cardiomyopathy, atrial fibrillation, hypertension, liver cirrhosis, traffic accidents, dementia, and polyneuritis are problems of naughty drinkers. The daily consumption of half a bottle of red wine with food does not seem to have any harmful effects other than adding 250 Kcal to your diet!

Down with these “naughty drinkers” and their “common drinks and spirits”!

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