A FRENCHMAN who doesn't drink wine is about as common as a Scot who doesn't like the taste of a malt. But for 200 years the canniest imbibers of the EC's most northerly outpost have known that, when it comes to health, the grape beats the grain.

As long ago as the 18th century the Scottish physician John Brown recommended that a Bordeaux could combat fatigue better than whisky. His compatriot William Heberden, a doctor, recommended a few sips of a fine claret at the onset of chest pain. Since then, evidence that the regular, but moderate consumption of wine is a factor in preventing the build-up of fatty deposits in arteries, which leads to heart disease, has mounted.

Scots still have a way to go in reducing heart disease but with European customs barriers down, the tastiest medicine in the world is even freer to work its wonders.

In France, people have always recognised the health benefits of wine. Dr Emmeric Maury, a French homeopath who died in 1991 at the grand age of 87, was a firm believer in the benefits of wine for the whole body.

His book Your Good Health: The Medicinal Benefits of Wine Drinking (Souvenir Press, pounds 9.99) published in Britain after his death, explains that most wines are beneficial as a medicinal supplement for common ailments. No wine can claim to cure, but Dr Maury suggests that sipped in moderation with a meal, it can aid everything from gastric problems to cellulite. He believed it all depended on the qualities of the grape; a Riesling can help to reduce obesity, but it takes a Sauternes to ease stomach pains.

Most of the wines Dr Maury recommended as a supplement to medication are French. His findings may set off a worldwide wine binge and earn the French wine industry millions of francs in extra foreign revenue. Not surprisingly, Catherine Manach, from the UK office of Food and Wine from France, supports the book. 'I am very pleased that someone has shown the health-giving properties of wine,' she says. 'As a child in France I was quite ill and my doctor prescribed champagne, but I didn't like it.'

An American wine producer has now printed 100,000 labels proclaiming that moderate drinking of red wine 'reduces the risk of heart disease'.

There is some scientific support for some of Dr Maury's claims. The regular consumption of red wines by the French - especially Saint-Emilion and Medoc - helps to reduce atherosclerosis, according to American and Israeli researchers. They have found that substances known as phenolic flavenoids in grape skin act as anti-oxidants and prevent the build up of fat. More recently, Dr Michel Bourziex, from Narbonne, reported isolating a range of molecules in pips and grape skins that are thought to play a role in the immune system. Some 'capture' free radicals - chemicals that can cause havoc in the body and which are linked with many types of cancer, premature ageing and other diseases.

Grapes from any particular region have particular health benefits. As John Brown, without any scientific back-up, claimed, the mineral content of a Bordeaux is a quick pick-me-up. According to Dr Maury, it can also bolster resistance to the flu. The diuretic effects of an inexpensive Blanc de Blancs help to clear the toxins that contribute to rheumatoid arthritis. Without the razzmatazz of a range of diet soft drinks, a Muscadet helps weight control because of its low-alcohol content, which aids digestion.

Dr Maury even discouraged a moderate intake of water, as 'a grave dietary error, as it is one of the causes of dyspepsia. Relying on this tasteless beverage affects the elasticity of the stomach cavity and changes the ability to break down foods. At a psychological level, in the habitual water drinker, (it) may encourage a tendency to pessimism and introspection'.

As a homeopath, Dr Maury explored the properties of many plants and herbs, including the vine. Even the vine leaves are believed to have healing properties, and have been used in the treatment of haemorrhoids and tuberculosis. But it is the fruit - the grape - that has the largest range of applications.

Dr Maury wrote: 'It has a beneficial effect on health by helping to strengthen the body's resistance to bacterial or viral attacks. Diuretic and purgative through its action on the kidney and liver, it plays a part in cleansing. Furthermore, its alkalising power modifies acidification of humoral areas, important in treating arthritis cases.'

His recommendations are not designed as cures, only as supplements to modern medicine, but the book challenges the ban on wine that some doctors enforce after an illness. 'To debar a sick person from enjoying an honest vintage in reasonable doses (apart from exceptions of which his doctor is the sole judge) is sometimes the result of ignorance of the remedial benefits that wine can produce.'

Dr Catherine Geissler, head of the Department of Nutrition at King's College Hospital, London, is sceptical about Dr Maury's claims, but is a supporter of mind over body. 'I don't want to knock it, because if people feel better as a result of believing this, then so much the better,' she said.

But doctors are not about to be replaced by wine merchants. Dr Maury retained a sense of respect for his more conventional colleagues, although at times, his love of the liquid clouded his scientific focus.

Under the section 'The Civilising Effect of Wine', he compared the vine to health: 'A vintage of a good standard cannot be achieved in a hurry. Years of effort and patience are needed to obtain a vine that will produce a wine worthy of the name. Isn't that true of health?' But the truth is more simple: a great wine outlasts those who produce it.

Dr Maury died as his book was being published. An epitaph? He practised what he preached.


Cardiac problems Champagne/Pouilly-Fuisse

They are rich in magnesium and potassium, which strengthen heart muscles and slow sclerosis of the circulatory system. Champagne is also a good cleanser and purifier.

Constipation Anjou/Vouvray (sweet wines).

Stimulate gall bladder into producing bile - loosens Intestines.

Kidney Stones Crepy/Ripaille (Savoy region).

Are diuretics, might help. Dr. Maury recommends only over a period of 2 weeks, with half a bottle a day drunk between 2 meals.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Blanc de Blanc or Sylvaner

Both wines are also diuretics, which will help the body expel the toxins which contribute to this arthritis.

Flu Bordeaux Full of minerals. Take only in moderation.

Cellulite Muscadet

Low alcohol wine which aids digestion after a meal which helps break down fats.

(Photograph omitted)