Medicinal Merits of Wine

Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum)

"Abscesses and foul ulcers may be treated with fresh leaves of mandrake and wax-salve, wounds with its root and honey or oil, or with hemlock added to wheat and neat wine." (Pliny, Natural History XXVI.145)

The antiseptic action of wine is due to the presence of the polyphenol, malvoside, which is also the principle pigment in red wines. (There is a colorless equivalent in white wines.) This pigment is already in the grapes, but it is combined with a carbohydrate, and so is not then an antiseptic. During the fermentation process, however, the wine's acidity allows it to split free and become active. Aging of the wine increases the amount of freed malvoside and so increases the wine's antibacterial power.

But the ability for wine to heal a wound is quite limited: the active principles quickly bind to proteins in the damaged area of the skin and become inactive. Still, keeping a dressing well-soaked with wine, along with the other readily available antibacterial—honey—was probably one of the more effective treatments of its day.