Wine is not just a beverage of pleasure. Both reds and whites have long been known for their therapeutic properties. In the Italian medieval town of Torgiano, the ancient culture of wine is being put to new uses for health and beauty in a local wellness spa.
At the Bella Uve spa, stressed-out visitors can enjoy massages with ointments made from grapes and herbs, and a Cleopatra-like bath in wine in a wooden tub. The bath is accompanied by a goblet of wine from the region.
Winemaking in central Italy's Umbria region dates back to antiquity. Using wine for wellness is also traced to ancient times, says Teresa Severini, one of Italy's first female oenologists. She helps run the family business, Lungarotti Winery, the biggest in the region.
'The Good Properties Of Wine'
"Many centuries ago, you can find recipes to have good skin, good health. And still today, if you go into the country you can find people immersing their legs in the wine when they are tired, or doing massage on their scalp because of the good properties of wine," Severini says.
The town looms over gentle hills, lined with row after row of vineyards.
On the lower slopes, succulent white grapes -- pinot grigio, trebbiano, and chardonnay -- are waiting to be picked. Reds such as sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and pinot nero glow lusciously on the higher slopes. This is the home of many fine wines, including Rubesco, whose name derives from the word "blush" in Latin.
Torgiano's Wine Museum traces the central role of wine in the economy and culture of the Mediterranean world and celebrates its importance in art, literature and religion.
Over the centuries, wine has been used as an antiseptic and a sedative to alleviate depression, hypertension, gout and rheumatism. Julius Caesar recommended wine for his troops to increase strength and prevent dysentery.
Recent studies suggest the compound resveratrol, found in the skin of red grapes, might have important anti-aging properties.
The spa has revived the ancient use of grapes and wine to make unguents, perfumes and soaps -- applied with modern massage methods.
Every treatment uses a specific wine for foot massages, facials and body peelings.
Masseuse Emanuella Menella fills a wooden tub that looks like a wine cask. She adds 3 liters of sangiovese red for the treatment, called "the Wave of Bacchus."
"We start the wine therapy with a scrub, massage with cream with wine, and after, a bath in wine," Menella says. "After the bath in wine, you feel energized because wine activates circulation. It is an antioxidant, and relaxes muscles."
Beauty Aides And Remedies
Many of the treatments available at the spa derive from what in centuries past were known as "books of secrets" -- documents filled with beauty aides and remedies for everyday ailments written by women for other women.
Torgiano's museum archives such rich historical detail of the uses of wine. It is the creation of Maria Grazia Lungarotti, widow of the founder of the Lungarotti Winery.
An art historian by training, Lungarotti has collected nearly 3,000 items for the museum that illustrate how wine has accompanied mankind for millennia.
The museum's cellar holds an 18th century wine press that follows the design described by the ancient Roman author Cato the Elder. This type of press was still in use as recently as 60 years ago.
"We all made wine more or less the way the Romans did until the Second World War. It all changed with modern machines and technology," she says.
Visitors can see Etruscan urns with scenes of funeral banquets, reflecting the belief that wine accompanied the soul on the long trip to the afterlife.
There are small jugs from the ancient Greek region of Attica of the fifth century B.C. They were traditional gifts for children during a festival honoring the god Dionysus and part of a rite of passage in which wine played a central role.
The displays alternate between the sacred and the profane, including ceremonial bronze pieces and glassware from ancient Greece, alongside medieval and renaissance winemaking tools.
A large section of the museum is dedicated to rare books, engravings and apothecary jars that illustrate the many uses of wine in medicine and cosmetics.
Visitors to Torgiano can experience those old methods put into practice.
At the spa, Menella says all the treatments are just modern versions of what Cleopatra and others of her time would have enjoyed.
"She did the bath in wine, the bath in milk, for moisturizing her skin. So we take the old treatments," Menella says. "Here in Umbria we have all natural products, why not use that?"