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France’s fascinating ‘wine treatment’

Time:2019-05-06 17:39wine - Red wine life health Click:

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The father of medicine, the Greek physician Hippocrates, experimented with a number of wine varietals to treat various ailments, believing that, “Wine is an appropriate article for mankind, both for the healthy body and for the ailing man.” In modern times, we’re generally taught to drink in moderation, but in France, which traces its viticulture back to the 5th Century BCE, ‘à votre santé’ – or ‘to your health’ – was a toast that still rang true until the turn of the 21st Century.

To learn more about France’s deliciously incestuous relationship between wine and medicine, I needed to visit a wine cellar deep in the bowels of a medieval hospital in Strasbourg, located in the Alsace region of eastern France.

View image of Hippocrates believed that “Wine is an appropriate article for mankind, both for the healthy body and for the ailing man” (Credit: Credit: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Strasbourg, a modern city with a 2,000-year history, is perhaps best known for its centre (the Grande-Île), which was listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1988. Travellers flock here to wander through its world-famous Christmas market, Cathedral Notre Dame and Palais Rohan, as well as to dine in typical Alsatian winstubs (wine restaurants) such as Restaurant Chez Yvonne or Maison Kammerzell, which sits in a building dating 1427.

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But I was heading to the Hôpital civil de Strasbourg, a teaching hospital that was founded 1119. On that late, rainy evening, the streets were empty, and as I walked over the wet cobblestones with two companions, it was easy to imagine what the city might’ve looked like hundreds of years ago.

Since 1395, the Hôpital civil de Strasbourg has had a symbiotic relationship with the Cave Historique des Hospices de Strasbourg (Historic Wine Cellar of Strasbourg Hospices), which lies directly beneath the hospital: one literally wouldn't exist without the other. For around 600 years, many of the hospital’s patients paid their medical bills with tracts of vineyard – and the grapes grown on these newly acquired lands were then made into wine in the cellar. This was a common practice in France, as the vineyards provided income for the hospitals; and the cellars – which functioned as large refrigerators – were the perfect places for keeping wine cool.

People from all over France came to the hospital to receive ‘wine treatments’, which were exactly what they sound like: up to two bottles a day of wine to treat various ailments.

View image of The Hôpital civil de Strasbourg has a symbiotic relationship with the Cave Historique des Hospices de Strasbourg (Credit: Credit: Garden Photo World/Alamy)

Although wine treatments were ubiquitous in ancient times, Thibaut Baldinger, the manager of the cellar who had graciously agreed to stay late to give my companions and me a tour, said that he had seen proof that wine had been used as medicine since the 1960 – and that the treatments weren’t stopped until 1990.

Some treatments perhaps worked better than others

A bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example, would be prescribed for bloating, while a bottle of everyone’s summer favourite, Côtes de Provence rosé, was used to treat obesity. High cholesterol? Just two measly glasses of Bergerac. For herpes, patients were told to bathe in a lovely Muscat de Frontignan. Trouble with your libido? Six dreamy glasses of Saint-Amour purportedly lubricated ailing lovers into Casanovas in no time at all – interestingly, two fillettes, or carafes, of this wine were also said to work for maladie de la femme (women troubles).

"What about the liver?" I quipped? Baldinger laughed: "Some treatments perhaps worked better than others."

I did later note, however, that the list of wine treatments included three entire bottles of Beaune Eau Gazeuse (Beaune wine mixed with sparkling water) for ‘cirrhose’, leading me to believe that at least one person from modern history believed inebriation to be an antidote to liver failure.

View image of The Cave Historique des Hospices de Strasbourg made and stored wines used for treating ailments in the Hôpital civil (Credit: Credit: Melissa Banigan)

Although the hospital's wine treatments ended several decades ago, the cellar continues to play an important role in France's winemaking history by continuing to showcase some of France’s finest wines while financially supporting the hospital. In 1995, however, the 600-year-old cellar was nearly relegated to history books for what Baldinger called a “lack of profitability”.

Over the 20th Century, the hospital sold off tracts of vineyards to finance certain hospital projects that required immediate attention, effectively stemming the supply of grapes to the cellar. The cellar was then forced to abandon its giant oak wine barrels after new French law – the Loi Évin – was passed in 1991. The law had strict provisions meant to prevent alcoholism, which meant the government no longer looked kindly upon booze in the basement of an établissement de santé, or health facility.

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