Recent studies suggesting that the French suffer less heart disease due to a regular intake of wine confirmed what most oenophiles have long suspected: wine not only tastes good – it’s also good for you. But the rejuvenative qualities in a bottle of Burgundy or a carafe of Cabernet tell only half the story. Grapes, and their seeds and vines, contain some of nature’s most powerful antioxidants, helping to account for the hottest trend in the spa industry: wine and grape-based treatments, known as vinotherapy.
Spa-goers the world over are now cleansing their faces with Merlot wraps, exfoliating with crushed Cabernet scrubs, and soaking themselves in vats of spring water treated with the extract of red grape vines, all of which help soothe, moisturise and protect the skin. It appears Cleopatra was on to something when she bathed in tubs of wine 2,000 years ago.
In fact, It’s rare to find a spa these days that doesn’t feature some kind of vinotherapy. Across Europe, spas are using London-based ISHI Elements, a “gourmet skinfood” company that creates creams and oils from Sangiovese, Chardonnay and Pinot grapes sourced from organic vines in Tuscany. In New York, Delluva Vinotherapy Day Spa, based entirely around wine therapy, opened in trendy Tribeca in January, featuring products derived from the Pinotage grape in South Africa. And resorts from the Hive Spa in Los Cabos in Mexico to The Inn at Camelback in Arizona now offer wine treatments using Olavie’s Le Vin range of oils made from Chardonnay grape seed.
But wine spa treatments are one thing; traveling to wine country to have them is the ultimate vinotherapy experience, and chic wine spa hotels and luxury vinotherapy resorts are springing up on vineyards and wine estates all over the world.
“Wine spa hotels have added an extra level of luxury and decadence to the whole spa-going experience,” says Terri Fleeman-Hardwick, editor of Spa World magazine, the British spa-goers’ bible. “People are always looking for something new and vinotherapy carries the gourmet thing that much farther. What can be better than getting a grape-seed scrub at a spa on a wine estate – and then getting to taste the wine derived from the vineyards outside?”
While the UK may not be known for its wines, Fleeman-Hardwick swears by The Vineyard at Stockcross, a new wine-themed hotel in Berkshire owned by California wine-maker Peter Michael, where you can follow a lavish vinotherapy treatment with a gourmet meal in a restaurant with two Michelin stars that features a 23,000-bottle wine list.
Talking of California, Mary Blackmon, founder of online directory www.spa-addicts.com, noted a sudden spike in the appeal of vinotherapy after the hit 2004 film Sideways. “We were getting hundreds of inquiries from people who wanted to visit spas in the Californian wine country of the film. When we started pointing out that some spas specialized in wine treatments, they became even more popular.”
Fittingly, the origins of vinotherapy and wine spa hotels can be traced back to France. It was on her family’s vineyard in Bordeaux in 1993 that Mathilde Thomas and her husband Bertrand met eminent pharmacologist Dr Joseph Vercauteren, who had discovered that grape seeds were rich in the antioxidant polyphenol back in 1970.
Using grape products harvested on their Château Smith Haut Lafitte estate in Bordeaux, the Thomases created the Caudalie skincare line in 1995, used by the likes of Madonna and Isabelle Adjani, and in 1999 trademarked the name Caudalie Vinothérapie when they opened the world’s first vinotherapy hotel, Les Sources de Caudalie, on the estate. Treatments there include a massage using fresh grapes that are crushed over the body.
It says something for the success of the concept that Les Sources de Caudalie is no longer the most famous Caudalie Vinothérapie spa. That honour now goes to the surreal, titanium-clad, $100 million Marqués de Riscal Hotel, designed by Frank Gehry. Opened in Rioja wine country in Spain in 2006, it is tipped to do for the region what Gehry’s Guggenheim did for Bilbao. Apart from the 43 rooms in the main building, and a restaurant run by Michelin-starred chef Francisco Paniego, the hotel’s state-of-the-art Caudalie Vinothérapie Spa has a heated indoor pool lined with Cabernet-red relaxation beds and hot tubs shaped like oak barrels for that signature Red Vine Bath.
Unlikely as it may seem, another wine-spa hotel became a site of architectural pilgrimage a year before the Marqués de Riscal. The Wine&Spa Resort Loisium Hotel, designed by US architect Stephen Holl and set in rolling vineyards in Austrian wine country, is a bizarre, cube-shaped aluminum-clad hotel resembling an artfully crumpled wine foil. Built over 900-year-old wine vaults, the 83-room property has a wine library, a centre for talks and tastings, and a gleaming Aveda Destination Spa set over three levels, specialising in vinotherapy.
Given that she created the wine therapy concept, Mathilde Thomas seems unruffled by the new wave of rival wine cosmetics companies and spas. “On the contrary,” she says: “It makes me feel proud to see how quickly wine therapy has grown.” But she does warn that not all wine spas are the real thing. Contrary to some perceptions, drinking wine during a treatment is not encouraged. “You should drink water of course this is cheaper to do and it comes with a guarantee. Only afterwards can you drink wine, over a good meal.” As for bathing in wine à la Cleopatra, as some spas suggest, that’s a complete no-no.
“Bathing in wine is definitely not good for you. You should bathe in spring water treated with the extract of red vines, which is good for the circulation and the skin.” Does it work? Try it for yourself….