Now, I love wine. I’ve done wine courses, where I learned to say things like, ‘I’m getting wet wool,’ or ‘silky texture’ or ‘a touch of herbaceousness.’
I’ve been on vineyard tours in Bordeaux and taken the Wine Train up through the Napa Valley — a trip my son described as ‘a middle-class party boat’. But I’ve never thought of it as a beauty aid.
Until now, that is. A spa has opened in London, offering the UK’s first wine therapies for beauty and wellbeing.
No, we’re not just talking drinking the stuff. Here it’s in the form of wraps, baths and facials featuring wine and its by-products such as grapeseed oil — and apparently there’s scientific proof to back up the benefits of all this, too.
The Ella Di Rocco spa opened this spring, the brainchild of surgeon Anna Brilli, who came across the idea at a spa in Italy some years ago, and her daughter Sonia Milena Brilli.
Geraldine Bedell (pictured) visited the UK’s first wine therapies spa, The Ella Di Rocco. Experts claim the wellness benefits of wine and grapes can improve skin and the immune system
Although new here, the concept has long been popular elsewhere: in New York and California, in Japan (where people bathe in communal wine pools), Portugal, Hungary, Argentina, and in France — where, thanks to a young woman called Mathilde Thomas, the modern trend originated.
In 1993, Mathilde was showing tourists around her family’s winery in Bordeaux. One of the visitors, a professor of pharmaceuticals, saw a vat of grape pips. When he learned they were going to waste, he pointed out that the vineyard was throwing away ‘treasures’.
He told Mathilde about the phenomenal properties of the polyphenols, compounds rich in antioxidants contained in grape pips and skins, which he said were ten times more effective than vitamin E at preventing wrinkles.
Mathilde ended up creating the first grape extract-derived antioxidant skincare — the hugely successful company Caudalie — and opening a 30-room wine spa overlooking her family’s Bordeaux winery, setting the template for the wine spas that would follow.
The claims made for the wellness benefits of wine and grape extracts are many. The theory is that the polyphenols that protect the grapes from the elements can do the same for us.
As antioxidants, they boost the immune system and plump up skin. They also apparently soothe aching muscles, which I’m glad of because I have done something to my knee and it’s making me feel 101 years old.
It is a relief to walk (well, hobble) off the congested London streets into Ella Di Rocco, with its scented candles and pistachio-coloured velvet chairs.
Over herbal tea, Anna tells me she’s been having wine therapy for many years in Italy. ‘I started having these treatments to relax my mind and body and minimise the look of my cellulite.
‘I really felt the health benefits of wine therapy so I was shocked it wasn’t available in the UK, which is so often at the forefront of health and beauty trends.’
Geraldine (pictured) had her dead skin brushed away with dry brushes in a full body exfoliation before her wine bath. The process prepares skin to absorb vitamins, minerals and polyphenols
The current interest in wine as a kind of marvellous medicine has been boosted by recent interest in the French diet.
French people seem to defy all the usual predictions: they eat cheese and butter in vast quantities, yet live longer and have less cardiovascular disease than people in many other countries.
One theory behind the ‘French paradox’ is the fact that the French drink red wine. Polyphenols have been cited as the explanation, particularly the most powerful, resveratrol. This compound — also found in blueberries, which is one reason why they’re seen as a superfood — has been the focus of anti-ageing science.
And this is partly why red wine is seen as healthier than white — the skins and pips are taken out of the barrel to make white wine, which leaves the wine with much lower levels of polyphenols.
Resveratrol has been shown to slow ageing and increase the lifespan of mice, according to scientists at Harvard Medical School. However no one has been able to prove that it does the same in humans.
And apparently you would have to drink 52 bottles of red wine a day to get enough resveratrol into your bloodstream to make a difference. That’s not to say that red wine isn’t making the French healthier, but the explanation doesn’t seem to be only about resveratrol.
It could simply be that they’re having a better time.
I am a bit woozy, but in a good way — the way you want to feel after a glass of very good wine
But that’s good enough for me. Some of the best times of my life have been spent not too far from the Mediterranean, with a glass of wine in hand. If I can get some of that feeling in hectic Britain, there’s no doubt I’ll feel better.
And the minute I step into the cave-like room where the wine therapy takes place, I start to feel more serene.
With wine bottles and grapes all around — all of which have very positive associations for me — I feel soothed even before my therapist, Irina, starts me off with a foot bath of lemons, rose petals and Himalayan salt.
After my foot bath, I have a full body exfoliation with dry brushes to sweep away dead skin and prime me to absorb all the vitamins, minerals and polyphenols that are going to plump out my skin and relax me.
Geraldine was advised not to drink water from her bath. The wine used to fill the bath contained AHAs and alpha hydroxy acids to hydrate and exfoliate
Then comes a body scrub using cornflour, leaves from the vines and red wine to open up my pores. The wine contains AHAs, alpha hydroxy acids, which exfoliate and hydrate.
Irina runs the pleasingly enormous bath with added virgin grape juice concentrate. She tells me the grape juice has antioxidant effects, meaning it will get rid of all that pollution and city wear and tear. Not only that, it is said to increase circulation, which is what helps with the appearance of cellulite, and also to reduce stress.
It also has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, which I am pleased about because of my misbehaving knee.
Finally, when the bath is almost full, in go a couple of bottles of wine: Sangiovese, an Italian grape. There’s a notice saying: ‘Please resist tasting the water while you are in the bath. Only drink the wine that is served in your glass.’
My first thought is why would anyone drink their bath? My second is that it does look tasty.
The water is a rich ruby colour, glinting in the low lights; it’s like seeing a glass of wine shining in firelight. I feel as though I am bathing in wellbeing. The bath, I am glad to say, does not smell like wet wool or for that matter, any of the other things red wines are supposed to smell like.
Geraldine claims her skin was noticeable softer after the 25 minute wine bath and her knee also felt better
Later, I look up the characteristics of Sangiovese, and it’s meant to smell like leather and ‘underbrush’, so it is a good thing the proportion of wine isn’t enough to give my bath a boozy smell.
As the most widely grown grape in Italy, Sangiovese produces some very good wines — Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. There is a part of me that’s thinking if it’s decent, I’d be better off drinking it.
Although convinced I am going to emerge Sangiovese-coloured, with my once bright-blue swimsuit a shade of muddy brown, I stick with it because Irina says you have to stay in for 25 minutes for the ingredients to soften the skin and muscle. When I eventually come out I am — thankfully — a perfectly normal colour.
Finally, there is a massage with grapeseed oil, extracted from grape seeds loaded with polyphenols and compounds known as OPCs — oligomeric proanthocyanidins, thought to promote youthful skin and improve elasticity, while helping to protect the skin from UV damage.
It’s pleasantly intoxicating — comforting and sophisticated
So does it work? My skin is softer, I am definitely glowing and even my knee has stopped annoying me.
I am a bit woozy, but in a good way — the way you want to feel after a glass of very good wine.
Wine therapy is not cheap. The 90-minute scrub, wine bath and massage package costs £245.
A 60-minute scrub, wine bath and wrap comes in at £195, while 110 minutes of scrub, wine tub, a wrap and massage will set you back £295.
The wraps can be customised to detox, moisturise or energise: the Merlot moisturising wrap uses wine yeast and honey to help boost the immune system, while the Sangiovese energising wrap involves essential oils and bentonite clay, which has long been used to absorb toxins.
Great claims have been made for the health benefits of wine. Red wine, in particular, has been said to contain ingredients that protect against cancer, Alzheimer’s and coronary heart disease.
However, many doctors wouldn’t go much further than to say that moderate drinking won’t actually do you any harm.
If you love the flavours, scents and variability of wine, then it does enhance your life. The same is true of wine therapy: it feels good, so it is good.
I felt great after my wine bath and grapeseed oil massage. I suspect that if the benefits are all they’re cracked up to be, to get them properly you’d have to undergo wine therapy regularly.
But even just once, it’s pleasantly intoxicating — comforting and sophisticated. And best of all, there’s no hangover.
4 OF THE BEST BOOZY BEAUTY PRODUCTS
Caudalie Multi-Purpose Divine Oil, £28, caudalie.com
Fragrant blend of oils and the company’s patented antioxidant polyphenols, for use on body, hair and nails.
Neogen Dermalogy bio-peel gauze peeling wine face pads, £22, selfridges.com
Dual-sided exfoliating face pads containing wine extract to help smooth skin.
Pure Super Grape Treatment Oil, £16, marksandspencer.com
Made using resveratrol extracted from the crushed pulp leftover from the production of Marks & Spencer wine.
Tony Moly red wine face mask sheet, £6, thisisbeautymart.com
A triple-layer cloth mask soaked in extracts of red wine and other antioxidant-rich plant extracts.