The distorted legacy of Émile Peynaud.

July 30 2004 2:08 PM

The Tastemaker

Émile Peynaud invented modern winemaking, but don't blame him for what's wrong with modern wine.

Emile Peynaud
Peynaud: Le maître

Émile Peynaud, the legendary French enologist who died last week at the age of 92, spent most of his professional life showing other people the error of their ways. Oddly enough, they loved him for it. This can be attributed partly to his disposition—he was, by every account, a mensch. But the reverence he commanded was mainly a function of his infallibility: On the subject of wine, pretty much everything Peynaud said was right. Having revolutionized winemaking in Bordeaux and beyond, he is justly considered the father of modern enology. If the term "modern" has lately acquired a pejorative connotation in wine circles—and these days, it usually connotes a jammy, oaky, rather anonymous wine—that's no fault of Peynaud's.

Peynaud achieved renown both as an academic and as a consultant. A faculty member of the University of Bordeaux's fabled Institut d'Oenologie, he was a beloved instructor and prolific scholar—during his career, he churned out hundreds of papers on all aspects of the vinification process. But he also put his knowledge to practical use: Over the course of his career, he served as an adviser to more than 100 wineries in Bordeaux alone, among them some of the most celebrated chateaux. (In later years, he also did work in Italy, Spain, and the United States.) In spreading his insights so liberally, Peynaud helped pioneer the role of the consulting enologist, and it was the time he spent in the cellars that set in motion sweeping changes in the way wines were made.

In the 1950s, there were good wines being produced in Bordeaux, but not a lot of them. Most were thin and tart, and many showed signs of spoilage. While the problems may seem easily diagnosable now—grapes were being harvested too early and cellars were unhygienic—that wasn't the case then; early harvesting had long been the norm, and a dirty cellar was considered a noble eyesore. It was Peynaud, in his genial but persistent way, who persuaded the Bordelaise that their viticultural and vinification practices were yielding oceans of plonk, and it was at his urging that they began picking riper fruit with softer tannins and threw away their old, bacteria-laden oak barrels to replace them with newer ones.

His recommendations resulted in cleaner, fruitier, more supple wines that were accessible in their youth but also built for the long haul. His approach was not without controversy. In the 1950s and '60s, there were skeptics who decried the "Peynaudization" of Bordeaux—they believed that a fine Bordeaux had to be hard-as-nails in its infancy and generally took a dim view of any wine that was especially pleasurable. But in time, Peynaud won over even his most recalcitrant critics, because his advice yielded clearly superior wines. "Using only the very best grapes is a new phenomenon," he told Decanter magazine in a 1990 interview. "For me, this is the crowning achievement of my work."

Peynaud wrote two books that have acquired biblical significance in the wine world: Knowing and Making Wine and The Taste of Wine. The English translations of both books were published in the mid-1980s by Wiley; today, they are harder to find than some of the best wines from that period, and nearly as expensive ($95 a pop). The books are invariably described as dry and dense. That's a fair depiction of Knowing and Making Wine, but The Taste of Wine, a soup-to-nuts guide to appraising what is in the glass, is very accessible and actually quite entertaining.

Whether the book was consciously modeled on Brillat-Savarin's Physiology of Taste is unclear, but in the precise language, the chatty but authoritative tone, and the taxonomic detail, the similarities are unmistakable. Consider this, from a section titled "The Wine Taster Should Always Be Fit": "To taste effectively, one must be relaxed, alert, unpreoccupied, and in good health. ... One must relish the prospect of wine and want to taste it in order to do so well." A few paragraphs later, Peynaud observes, by way of warning, that "false teeth can be a hindrance to tasting."

In one especially delicious passage, he skewers the pretensions of his compatriots. "If you are French," he writes, "you are possibly an advocate of drinking in quantity with traditional Rabelaisian extravagance, but statistically you are not a connoisseur. Remember, 60 percent of the best French wines are exported ... it is well known in the wine trade that as a Frenchman your general knowledge of wine is below average and that you are a provincial drinker."

But despite the clarity of his views and his long paper trail, Peynaud's legacy has often been misinterpreted or distorted. It is certainly true that Peynaud, through his consulting work, helped pave the way for today's celebrity winemakers—globe-trotting enologists paid handsome sums to help estate owners produce critically acclaimed, highly coveted wines—and that the most sought-after of these gurus is a former student of his, Michel Rolland. However, Peynaud himself shunned the spotlight, and it is doubtful he looked kindly on the cultish following the "flying" winemakers have acquired (or cultivated).

Doubtful, too, that he looked kindly on the homogenizing influence that consultants like Rolland, in tandem with critics like Robert Parker, have had. Peynaud valued diversity in wine and often said there was no recipe for making great ones. Rolland insists he doesn't come bearing recipes, but given that he juggles dozens of clients on several continents, it is fair to wonder just how much customized advice he gives. (It is also fair to wonder how much customized advice his clients want: I suspect that most of them hire Rolland because they believe he has a formula for crafting wines that will win the all-powerful Parker's favor and want that formula applied to their cabernets and merlots.)

But the biggest misconception about Peynaud concerns his stylistic preferences. In recent years, his name has frequently been invoked by those seeking to justify the trend toward ultraripe wines and to muzzle critics of the "fruit bomb" phenomenon. However, three people who knew him well—Jacques Boissenot, his business partner from 1978 to 1990; Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon, who taught with him; and Michael Schuster, a British wine writer and educator who translated The Tasteof Wine into English—all told me this week that Peynaud abhorred the blockbuster style that has become prevalent in Bordeaux and elsewhere. Schuster says that, far from being the proud progenitor of the so-called garage wines—these being the turbocharged reds that are now all the rage on Bordeaux's right bank—Peynaud thought most of them "undrinkable and not representative of Bordeaux. The new-wave style wasn't to his liking."

What Peynaud emphasized above all else was the need for balance; for all the elements in a wine—the fruit, tannins, acidity, and alcohol—to be in harmony. According to Schuster and Boissenot, this is a quality he found sorely lacking in much contemporary winemaking. "He thought there was too much extraction, too much new wood, and not enough finesse," says Boissenot. "I think he felt that people incorrectly interpreted the things he taught." Peynaud made that point himself in an interview some years ago with Wine International magazine; on the subject of new oak, he said, "My aim was never to persuade all these producers to buy new barrels. ... I'd have been just as happy for many of them to replace the bad casks with clean concrete tanks."

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