You don’t usually associate detoxing with fun – or booze. But there’s plenty of both on a new red wine detox in the Madiran wine region in south-west France
I’d always thought of red wine as my nemesis. Every time I managed to get close to my wedding day weight – many years and two children ago – a couple of glasses of shiraz with mates seemed to put it all back on. So when I spotted a new red wine detox and weight loss retreat in the Madiran area of south-west France, I was intrigued. It claimed (joy!) that red wine is not an enemy, but an ally when it comes to health.
I’d spend a few days in a manor house in the Gers department, eating nothing but fruit and veg – no meat, fish, dairy or caffeine – but still enjoy an evening glass of the good stuff, and come home lighter and brighter.
Rather than a mood-ruining budget-air battle, I took a train to Mont-de-Marsan, about 40 minutes’ drive from the house. The Gers is one of the least populated areas of western Europe – 6,000 square kilometres with no motorways, no cities, and just one sizable town, Auch (pop 23,500). Manoir d’Alegria, which Margaretha Liddell-Grainger (South African but brought up in France) and her British husband Charles bought three years ago, is a peaches-and-cream farmhouse amid vine-clad hills.
Margaretha is a doctor but decided several years ago to concentrate on health rather than sickness. She’s an expert in motivational hypnotherapy among other things, but also has a more unusual speciality.
Waking up the first morning in my comfy bedroom in a converted barn, I felt almost deafened by the hush. No crowing cockerels here. Then the silence was broken, delightfully, by the gentlest of snorts just outside my window. Or was it a whinny, or a nicker? I know nothing about horses, not even the terminology. But the idea of a retreat is to reboot your mind as well as your metabolism, and in the company of Margaretha’s four-legged therapists – Belle, Beau, Rory and Duke – I was to learn that there are more challenging things than getting by on 800 calories a day.
They were delicious calories, mind. After a brisk hour’s walk through vineyards with wine expert Charles, breakfast for the three of us on the detox (I was with Jenny and Ann, both also British) was strawberries, melon, apricots and grapefruit, with orange juice and (herb) tea. A deliciously relaxing hypnotherapy session followed, and then it was outside for Margaretha’s speciality: equine-assisted learning. She is a member of Eagala, the Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association, which promotes the use of horses for emotional growth and wellbeing.
How would a complete novice around horses cope? Grooming a horse wasn’t too challenging, but tasked with moving three horses into a “corral” marked off by poles, without touching the animals, I instantly regressed to petulant child. The Duke, bless him, was coaxed reasonably easily, but when Beau and Belle just ignored or evaded our attempts, Margaretha suggested we add a few props, including a rope and halter. My inner sulky teen grumbled that I’d never touched a halter before, had no idea how it went on and this was all just silly … But a little later I found Belle standing close to me and quickly slung the rope over her neck. The 800kg of powerful Friesian draught mare was instantly co-operative, and the sulky teen sloped off to be replaced by a grown woman who, momentarily at least, could handle anything.
After a challenging morning, lunch of gazpacho and salad and a small handful of dried fruit and nuts left my stomach growling, but I consoled myself with the thought of the other element of this unusual detox: wine.
The idea of red wine being good for you was put forward by Dr Roger Corder in his 2006 book The Red Wine Diet. Researching the French Paradox (the way a nation that eats lots of cheese and charcuterie suffers relatively little heart disease) he identified compounds in some red wines called procyanidins, which seem to keep human blood vessels springy and squeaky clean.
Some of the richest in terms of health-giving substances are Madiran wines made in the Gers, where many regional food specialities would give Gwyneth Paltrow palpitations: duck, ham, full-fat cheese, pâté de foie gras. Yet among the local people, called Gersois, there is twice the national average of people aged 90-plus. Could this have anything to do with the wine? (The other place where wines are full of procyanidins is Sardinia, also famed for longevity.)
Corder’s book goes into the science of procyanidins, and the way they prevent not only clogged arteries but diabetes, macular degeneration, dementia and more. Sounds great, but what’s the wine like to drink? Charles took us to find out at the co-operative in the nearby village of Saint-Mont.
I loved the way the co-op was both serious and completely unassuming. It produces 45m bottles of wine a year, some very expensive, much exported, yet we were served with no more fuss than in a corner shop, and at the back wines were sold on draught from what looked like petrol pumps. We tried the cheapest, only €1 a litre and better than the house red in many a London restaurant. Local grape tannat is the hero when it comes to procyanidins, and it lives up to its name in being quite tannic, but as we tasted (dutifully spitting out – can’t spoil the detox yet) a series of better-quality wines, I started enjoying their underripe berry flavours, and spicy edge. It occurred to me that Madiran wine’s health benefits may be linked to the fact that it’s great with food, less good for knocking back on its own in a wine bar after work.
A glass of Madiran that night with our dinner of ratatouille and fruit went down very well, though the lack of carbs to soak it up did mean a slight headache the next morning.
The days followed a relaxing pattern. Morning walk with Charles, fruit and herb tea, hypnotherapy, soup and herb tea, session with the horses (I couldn’t believe how much more relaxed I grew around them), more herb tea. By day two my stomach had given up growling, and the suggestions about healthy eating implanted during Margaretha’s hypnotherapy sessions must have worked, because on a trip to the market at nearby Aire sur l’Adour, I didn’t even think about dodging into a cafe for a grand crème and a croissant.
On many detoxes, you might see the doctor or therapist just at the beginning and end of the programme. Here I felt more like a friend than a patient, and Margaretha was a kind and encouraging presence each day, eating the same food as us, there to chat about any worries, but also for a giggle or a spot of sunbathing.
After a few days of fruit and veg (and wine – it’s made from fruit) Margaretha considered us detoxed enough to reintroduce other foods. (She accepts the medical argument that human bodies have systems for eliminating harmful substances, but points out that these evolved for simpler toxins than those modern life throws at us.) So pumpkin soup came with ambrosial homemade sunflower seed bread. A cheese course after our vegetable stir-fry that night felt like the height of indulgence, paired, of course, with a cheeky Madiran.
I came home fizzing with health and good cheer. Over the standard seven-day break at the manoir, people can expect to lose about 5lb or more; in a too-short three days I shed only a couple of pounds. So the wedding day eight-stone-nothing remains elusive. Maybe the wine’s to blame. But maybe the more important thing is to keep up the Madiran habit (it’s available at several UK outlets, including Waitrose and the Wine Society): then, blood zinging round sparkly arteries, I’ll feel just as good when my silver – or even, if the sprightly Gersois are anything to go by, golden – wedding rolls around.
• The trip was provided by GoLearnTo.com (0845 625 0445); a six-night break costs from £1,099pp including meals and activities, but not travel. Travel was provided by RailEurope (0844 848 4070, raileurope.co.uk) which has returns from London to Mont-de-Marsan from £152