Herbs in History: Grapevine
Vitis vinifera L.
By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | September 2023
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Illustration 1: Vitis in nature
The Most Noble Plant
In medicinal plants and materia medica, the title of Most Noble Plant should probably be conferred on Vitis spp. (Vitacease) (Illustration 1). It has a pedigree that very few plants—if any—can claim. Known from the most ancient traces of human activity in the Trans-Caucasian region and probably even before, it accompanied humankind through its history and the centuries, be it as a plant (grape) or as its most elaborated derivative (wine). Its history is increasingly better known, particularly in recent years, with the unprecedented development of under-water archaeology and, more recently, of ancient DNA identification.
Amphorae and other containers are regularly recovered from the many sunken ships laying on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea that can probably be identified as the largest museum of the world. And ancient DNA analysis makes it possible to identify the plants and other material contained in these amphorae from their remains or even invisible traces. DNA analysis is not limited to amphorae but can be applied to a great variety of archeological material, from daily objects to soils.
Thanks to the important consumption of grape and wine in the ancient world and, as a result, thanks to an intensive trade activity—which was mostly by sea—, an increasingly clearer vision of the history of the plant and its derivative emerges, which usefully completes the reading of the ancient texts detailing the knowledge, agricultural production, alimentary uses, treatment (vinification) and medicinal applications of both grape and wine. Combination of these two lines of research—archaeological and textual—has recently brought spectacular results that substantially modify the history of grape and wine, particularly in medicine. And they are leading to a resuscitation of ancient grapes thought to be lost forever.
A Recent Arrival?
Although some Sumerian tablet and the Egyptian medicinal papyri—from the Kahun to the Berlin one, from ca. 1850 BCE to ca. 1350 BCE, respectively—contain formulae for medicines that include wine, it is only with the Greek Classical World that we can identify an articulated strategy for the use of grape and wine in medicine. Surprisingly—if not contradictorily—exact knowledge and, by way of consequence, application in medicine seem to have come late relatively speaking, as the medical literature suggests.
The so-called Corpus Hippocraticum, that is, the collection of 62 treatises attributed to Hippocrates of Kos (456 - between 375 and 350 BCE), contains 5,500 references to plants among which only 70 are about wine. Going beyond this global number—which might induce premature conclusions—and taking a closer look at the works in which wine is mentioned, exactly half of these 70 cases (35) are found in a single treatise (Diseases of Women), dating to mid-fifth century BCE. Of the second half, seven cases appear in another gynecological treatise of the same epoch (Nature of Women) and 12 others in a work on diet in acute diseases (Regimen in Acute Diseases), slightly posterior (end of the 5th century BCE). We thus have 54 attestations in these three treatises over the years 450-400 ca., that is, ca. 75% of all mentions in the Corpus Hippocraticum. Of the other attestations, three appear in two treatises on pathology dating to 450 BCE ca., and 13 in the following six works dating the late 5th or early 4th century BCE dealing with pathology (Internal Affections, Epidemics II and VI), alimentation and diet (Regimen, and Use of Liquids), and traumatology (Wounds).
Considering the geographical origin of the treatises above—since none of them is by Hippocrates, born in the island of Kos, in the Aegean—those of known origin come from the school of Cnidus, on the mainland across the island of Kos, in contemporary Turkey. Yet, these treatises evidence a particular interest in therapeutics, which distinguishes them from those of the school of Kos, traditionally considered to be more interested in the clinical observation of the patients. The stronger presence of wine in these Cnidian treatises might be a sign of the persistence of an earlier tradition possibly going as far back as Mesopotamia.
Recommended wine is described as unmixed (that is, pure), well-mixed (in fact, mixed with water as ancient wine was almost pasty and rather strong), well-scented, dry, yellow, white or color of honey, dark (that is red), thick or, instead, watery, and old. In two cases, the wine is identified by a geographical origin: the island of Thasos, in the Northern Aegean Sea, or Crete.
In the ancient works (mid-fifth century), wine use is primarily directed toward women. The medicines are mainly for external use, with gynecological injections, cleaning lotions, and sitz-baths for affections of the womb. They are used in normal conditions (that is, not in the case of a pregnancy), in pregnancy, and in post-partum conditions. There are also some non-gynecological uses: the treatment and dressing of wounds, certain cases of fever, an ophthalmic unguent, and the treatment of depression.
Most of these uses probably can be accounted for by the anti-infectious properties of wine: the antibacterial - or, better, bactericidal- properties of polyphenols. This might explain the presence of wine in the gynecological prescriptions (mainly to clean the womb of possible infectious agents, be it in normal conditions and during or after a pregnancy), in the treatment of wounds, and in an ophthalmic unguent.
The administration in cases of fever might be justified by the excitement and the vaso-dilatation that follows wine consumption. Both phenomena increase blood flow, which, in turn, might have helped to reduce excessive bodily heat or eliminate the infectious process that provoked the fever.
Finally, the use in a case of depression is interesting. It recalls the prescription of psychotropic in the same conditions in ancient literature. Whereas it might seem deprived of scientific basis, it probably relates to the temporary euphoria that can result from wine over-consumption.
Going through the centuries, in the large encyclopedia compiled in the 1st century CE by Dioscorides under the title De materia medica in an exact translation of its Greek title, wine is more abundantly used, with over 400 indications (Illustrations 2 a-c). Since the total number of formulae for medicines is almost the same in both the Hippocratic Corpus and De materia medica (5,500), this higher number of mentions hints at a significant increase in the therapeutic use of wine. We pass from 1.2 to 7.2%.
Grapevine in the 10th century Constantinopolitan manuscript of Dioscorides, De materia medica, now preserved in New York, NY, Pierpont Morgan Library, M 652
2a: folio 10 recto
2b: folio 10 verso
2c: folio 11 recto
What is most significant, however, is not this number, but the types of wine: not only the traditional ones, white and red, light and heavy, and thin and thick as in the Corpus Hippocraticum, but also a wide range of aromatized wines, sometimes identified by the generic name of aromatized but most often exactly identified by the name of the plant (or plant derivative) they were aromatized with. There are no less than 24 such aromatizing plants, the most often cited is Squill (Drimia maritima (L.) Stearn, Asparagaceae, = Urginea maritima (L.) Baker = Scilla maritima L.) (17 occurrences). Then, in order of mentions, comes Greek Juniper (Juniperus excelsa M. Bieb., 14 occurrences), followed by pitch and resin (both cited 12 times). Absinth comes next (11),before Bramble, Spikenard, Hyssop (10), and a Ferula of the Opopanax genus (all four with10 mentions). Among the less cited plants are Hazelwort, Chamomile and Thyme (all three with 5 occurrences); Palm Tree (4); Yellow Flag, Rose, Pomegranate, and Mandrake (all appearing in three mentions); Scammony and Hellebore (2 citations); and Carrot, Dittany, Sage and a species in the genus Inula, in addition to pinecones (one occurrence for each of them).
This enumeration, apparently disparate, covers the very nature of the list. First and foremost, all aromatizing plants certainly added a therapeutic component to wine. This is particularly clear with Squill, already known in Antiquity for its diuretic property. Significantly enough, it is the most used herb to aromatize wine. In the same range of activity, are Scammony and Hellebore, both of which were already identified as cathartic at that time. Chamomile probably produced some light relaxing and soporific wine, whereas Mandrake wine, if carefully prepared without exceeding—or even approaching—the lethal or even the toxic dose, could have had differentiated effects, aphrodisiac, analgesic, and hypnotic. The wines with these aromatizing plants were all the more potent because wine is more efficacious than water in extracting the active principles of plants. Other plants probably aimed at a different goal: producing pleasant and delicate wines, probably for tasting and slow sipping for enjoyment, in addition to generating some healthy benefits. This is certainly the case of Bramble, Pomegranate and Rose, the infusion of which created a sweet, slightly acid and somewhat astringent wine, with a nice effect in the mouth. A characteristic, yet different sensation was probably produced by Absinth, Spikenard, Hyssop, Thyme, and Dittany, with some pungency and, at the same time, a distinct herbal taste possibly enhanced by a flavor of exotism with Spikenard. Pitch, resin and pinecones, as well as Greek Juniper gave their resinous taste to the wine resulting in a characteristic feeling of freshness and vividness that was probably not much different from the current retsina wines of Greece.
Illustration 3: Grape in a fresco of Pompeii
Illustration 4: The vineyard in the Forum Boarium of Pompeii
These organoleptic properties of aromatized wines, in addition to their health benefits, should not hide technical strategies aimed at improving the conservation of wine. The final stage of the natural process of fermentation of which wine is a product is not wine, indeed, but vinegar. Conservation of wine requires stopping or, at least, postponing for as long as possible this second phase of wine life. Winemakers in Antiquity were very much aware of this, and they added several substances to wine, from chalk to salt and even sea water, to preserve wine. And, as modern pharmaco-chemistry shows, the various plants used in Antiquity to aromatize wines have the ability to destroy the bacteria responsible for the transformation of wine into vinegar.
From the time of the Hippocratics to Dioscorides, wine went a long way, thus, apparently as the result of an intensive activity aimed at improving it, guaranteeing its preservation, potentiating its medicinal uses, and making its consumption pleasant, if not delicate. As it is often the case in history, this peak was shortly followed by a decline. Liquid medicines were soonreplaced by dry medicines that offered the advantage of being more stable. Nevertheless, wine medicines remained in use, but they were reserved for external use—and no longer or much less for internal use—, mostly for the treatment and dressing of wounds where the antiseptic properties of wine were of fundamental importance.
his re-orienting in the applications of wine in medicine did not mean in any way that wine became obsolete. It simply took a new direction, particularly in the Roman World, with an emphasis on agricultural techniques of production, expansion of the range of grape species and, hence, of wines, and methods of preservation. This without speaking of the development of a culture of wine, oenology, and wine fashion (Illustration 3).
Illustration 5: The horticultural technique of the vitis compluvi
The main source about this vine- and wine-culture is the vast encyclopedia of natural sciences compiled by Pliny (23/24-79 A.D.) complemented by specialized agricultural and agronomical treatises as that by the Latin Columella (4-70 A.D.) and the most recent archeological discoveries in Pompeii. The combination of all the information collected from these sources has led to a deep revision of the history of grape cultivation, vineyards, and wine making. Until not so long ago, for example, it was believed that the agricultural technique described by Pliny, consisting in growing such plant as trefoil between the rows of vines was incorrect and resulted from a misunderstanding. Experimental application of this technique has demonstrated its advantages, instead, from preserving moisture in the soil thanks to this green cover to the production of the nitrogen indispensable for plant growth.
Illustration 6a-c: The major fresco of the Villa of Mysteries representing the rituals of Bacchus’ mysteries, with three panels representing phases of the mysteries
The most spectacular reinterpretation of traditional history, however, might be the archeological discoveries at Pompeii. The key locus is the site traditionally identified as the Forum Boarium, considered to be devoted to the trade of bovine cattle for human meat consumption. Excavations have brought to light a wine press and a winery with ten large terracotta containers in the soil, for the making of wine. Archeologists also found a large vineyard, where the placement of the vine was still clearly visible thanks to the holes of the roots (Illustration 4). The distance between the roots is regular (five feet) and corresponds to that indicated by Pliny. The technique of cultivation consisted in the so-called vitis compluviata (Illustration 5), with poles planted in the soil and sustaining the vine, the twigs of which were arranged top-down (rather than the opposite) and created a pergola (Illustration). As a result, the vineyard was a garden of a totally new type, with shaded alleys through which people could have a pleasant walk.
Going further, the specialists of the scientific laboratory of Pompeii were able to analyze the remains of vine roots and to identify the vine. And, as if this was not enough, the Department of Antiquities of Pompeii entered into an agreement with a local winery interested in experimental agriculture aimed to grow again this Pompeii vine according to the methods described by Pliny and, if successful, to produce wine. After years of experimentation, this wine made in the ancient, Roman way as closely as possible, while respecting at the same time all the necessary rules and regulations for a safe and healthy production, is now available. It is a rarity as it was in its own time.
This archeologico-scientific exploit combined with a no-less significant agriculturo-horticultural experiment and vinicultural research is best implemented in the site of Pompeii that is probably the most significant of the whole history of wine in Antiquity: the Villa of Mysteries.
The Villa owes its name from the frescoes that adorn its walls. According to one interpretation, they represent the initiation of a young bride to the mysteries of the cult to Bacchus, the god of wine. In seven panels, they show all the process of the initiation, at the end of which the bride is ready for her wedding (Illustrations 6 a-c).
Just like the Forum Boarium, the Villa had a vineyard, the grapevine species of which have been identified. They are historical vines—Piedirosso and Sciascinoso—in addition to the Aglianico of Greek origin, the latter of which further illustrates the Pan-Mediterranean history of grape and wine. And here, too, experimental cultivation (Illustration 7) and wine making according to the historical documentation led to the production of a new wine, aptly named Villa dei Misteri, which is now as rare and precious as it was in Antiquity. This year’s harvest will start soon!
Illustration 7: The vineyard at the Villa of Mysteries
This new vocation of wine as a de-luxe product reserved to a wealthy elite did not eliminate wine’s place in medicine. In later times, indeed, cosmetics were wine-based. In the Byzantine world, Oribasius in the 4th century recommended preparations containing laudanum, myrtle oil, maidenhair, aloe, and strong dark wine, or myrrh and laudanum in wine and myrtle oil to stop alopecia. In the 6th century, Alexander of Tralles mentions a preparation to darken white hair, made of shells of unripe walnuts, berries of kermes oak, and black wine, all boiled until one-third remained, or very old wine placed in a lead pot with lead fillings; to make hair blond, instead, he suggested wine lees with fatty substances in bath water and mixed until a waxy consistency was achieved. A century later, Paul of Aegina recommended unction of aloe with dry, dark wine to treat alopecia.
From the Hippocratics to the Byzantines, grapevine had a long history, with differentiated phases, from medicine to cosmetics, from life-saving remedy to high-luxury beverage, each of which certainly justify the title of Vitis as The Most Noble Plant.
European Union herbal monograph on Vitis vinifera L., folium.
Final, 30 may 2017.
30 May 2017
Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC)
List of references supporting the assessment of Vitis vinifera L., folium
30 May 2017
Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC)
Assessment report on Vitis vinifera L., folium
Scientific articles and books
Domestication of grape and origins of viticulture
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Dong Y. et al. 2023. Dual domestications and origin of traits in grapevine evolution. Science 379(6635) (March 3 2023), pp. 892-901.
Bonhomme V. et al. 2021. Pip shape echoes grapevine domestication history. Scientific Reports, 11(1) (Nov. 1 2021): 21381.
Grassi F., G. De Lorenzis 2021. Back to the Origins: Background and Perspectives of Grapevine Domestication. International Journal of Molecular Sciences 22(9) (26 April 2021):4518.
McGovern P.E. 2019 Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton Science Library 76), Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2019.
Bouby L. et al. 2013. Bioarchaeological insights into the process of domestication of grapevine (Vitis vinifera L.) during Roman times in Southern France. PLoS One 8(5) (15 May 2013): e63195.
Myles S. et al. 2011. Genetic structure and domestication history of the grape. PNAS 108(9) (Mar. 1 2011), pp. 3530–3535.
McGovern P.E. 2007 Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007.
McGovern P.E., S.J. Fleming, SH. Katz (eds) 2003. The Origins and Ancient History of Wine (Food and Nutrition in History and Antropology Series 11). London and New York, NY: Routledge, 2003.
Zohary D. 2003. The domestication of the grapevine Vitis vinifera L.in the Near East. In McGovern P.E. et al. (eds), The Origins and Ancient History of Wine. London and New York: NY: Routledge, 2003, pp. 23–30.
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Riaz S. et al. 2018. Genetic diversity analysis of cultivated and wild grapevine (Vitis vinifera L.) accessions around the Mediterranean basin and Central Asia. BMC Plant Biology 18(1) (Jun. 27 2018):137.
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Wine, medicine and food
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Bauman H., M. Green 2022. Food as Medicine Update: Grape (Vitis vinifera, Vitaceae). Revised version (2022) of an article published in 2015. https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalegram/volumes/volume-19/issue-3-march/news-and-features-1/food-as-medicine-update-grape/
Jixiao Z., D. Caigan 2020. Could grape-based food supplements prevent the development of chronic kidney disease? Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 60(18) (2020), pp. 3054-3062.
Gupta M. et al. 2020. Grape seed extract: having a potential health benefits. Journal of food science and technology 57(4) (2020), pp. 1205-1215.
Tabita A. et al. 2018. Characterization of an Antioxidant-Enriched Beverage from Grape Musts and Extracts of Winery and Grapevine By-Products. Beverages 4(1) (2018): 4. https://doi.org/10.3390/beverages4010004
Le L. et al. 2017. Constituents and Antioxidant Activity of Bleeding Sap from Various Xinjiang Grapes. Pharmacognosy magazine 13,Suppl 3 (2017): S726-S730.
History of medicinal uses of grape and wine
Norrie, P. The History of Wine as a Medicine: From its Beginnings in China to the Present Day; Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019.
Laios K. et al. 2019. Drugs for mental illnesses in ancient Greek medicine. Psychiatriki 30(1) (Jan.-Mar. 2019), pp. 58-65.
Nencini P. 1997. The rules of drug taking: wine and poppy derivatives in the ancient world:
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II. Wine-induced loss of control and vigilance. Substance Use & Misuse 32(2) (Jan. 1997), pp. 211-217.
III. Wine as an instrument of aggressive behavior and of ritual madness. Substance Use & Misuse 32(3) (Feb. 1997), pp. 361-367.
IV: The rules of temperance. Substance Use & Misuse 32(4) (Mar. 1997), pp. 475-483. DOI: 10.3109/10826089709039366
V. Sobriety or postponement of drunkenness? Substance Use & Misuse 32(5) (Apr. 1997), pp. 629-633.
VI. Poppies as a source of food and drug. Substance Use & Misuse 32(6) (May 1997), pp. 757-766.
VII. A ritual use of poppy derivatives? Substance Use & Misuse 32(10) (Aug. 1997), pp. 1405-1415.
VIII. Lack of evidence of opium addiction. Substance Use & Misuse 32(110 (Sep. 1997), pp. 1581-1586.
IX. Conclusions. Substance Use & Misuse 32(14) (Dec. 1997), pp. 2111-2119.
General history of grape and wine
Charters S. et al. 2022. The Routledge Handbook of Wine and Culture. London and New York, NY: Routledge, 2022.
Johnson H. 2020 The Story of Wine: From Noah to Now. Ascot: Académie du Vin Library, 2020.
Pellechia T. 2006. Wine: The 8,000-Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade. New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006.
Unwin T. Wine and the Vine: An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade. London and New Yorik, NY: Routledge, 1996.
History of grape and wine in the ancient Mediterranean World
Rosa Peiró R. et al. 2023. New findings and actions in the recovery of old Mediterranean grapevine varieties. Vitis-Journal of Grapevine Research 62(3) (2023), pp. 136-139.
Harutyunyan M., M. Malfeito-Ferreira 2022. The Rise of Wine among Ancient Civilizations across the Mediterranean Basin, Heritage 2022, 5(2), pp. 788-812. https://doi.org/10.3390/heritage5020043
Taskesenlioglu M.Y., S. Ercisli, M. Kupe, N. Ercisli 2022. History of grape in Anatolia and historical sustainable grape production in Erzincan agroecological conditions in Turkey. Sustainability 14 (2022), 1496.
Plotkin M. 2021. The ethnobotany of wine as medicine in the ancient Mediterranean world. HerbalGram 129 (2021), pp. 56-71.
Cervantes Y.P. 2020. Wine making in the Iberian Peninsula during the Roman period: Archaeology, archaeobotany and biochemical analysis. In Brun J. et al. (eds) 2020. A. Making Wine in Western-Mediterranean, B. Production and the Trade of Amphorae: Some New Data from Italy. Heidelberg: Propylaeum, 2020; pp. 73–87.
Valamoti S.M. et al. 2020. More than meets the eye: New archaeobotanical evidence on Bronze Age viticulture and wine making in the Peloponnese, Greece. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 29 (2020), pp. 35–50.
McGovern P. et al. 2017. Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus, PNAS 114(48) (Nov. 28 2017): E10309–E10318.
Thurmond D.L. 2017. From Vines to Wines in Classical Rome: A Handbook of Viticulture and Oenology in Rome and the Roman West. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
McGovern P.E., A. Mirzoian, G.R. Hall 2009. Ancient Egyptian herbal wines., PNAS 106(18) (Mary 5 2009), pp. 7361-7366.
McGovern P.E. 2009 Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Retsas S. 2008, Dinners and wines of ancient Greece, Transactions of the Medical Society of London 125 (2008), pp. 89-96.
Paul H.W. 2001. People's stories: wine in popular medicine, Clio Medica 64 (2001), pp. 1-24.
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