Samuel Hahnemann: Homeopathy and the origins of wine authentication

While only just beginning my adventures out of the wine world and back in the sphere of academia here at Cambridge, I’ve already stumbled upon an interesting connection.

Because of my longstanding and sustained interest in biodynamics, often referred to as the agricultural analog of homeopathic medicine in reference to its use of infinitesimally small ‘homeopathic’ doses of biodynamic preparations, I thought it appropriate to look at homeopathy in my first paper.  In reading up on the biography of Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathic medicine, I unearthed another of his contributions – the “Wine Test.”

Because of the prevalence of sweetening wines by illegally adding “sugar of lead” in the early 18th century, an earlier test, the “Wurtemburg Wine Test” had been in use since 1707, which allowed for the detection of adulteration of wines via chemical reaction.  However, it became clear that the test was incapable of differentiating between traces of lead from the addition of “sugar of lead” and more innocuous traces of iron, which could result from contact with metal tools or vessels (iron levels are of course closely monitored in modern wines).  Hahnemann’s contribution was thus to develop a new test that avoided the false positive resulting from iron contamination, and instead warned specifically of the presence of lead in wines.  Hahnemann’s test came to replace the Wurtemburg test as the official method for verification in Prussia.

Thus it turns out that in addition to inventing homeopathy, which was arguably an important precursor to the development of biodynamic agriculture, Samuel Hahnemann was also a pioneer in analytical chemistry for wine authentication.

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