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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.

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