Sunday, July 8, 2012

Revisiting a classic: Peynaud's The Taste of Wine

Before Louis Pasteur discovered that different yeasts could affect a wine's taste, "Good wine was merely the result of lucky accidents," wrote Émile Peynaud, the great Bordelais vintner who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to understand those accidents and bring them under human control. Born in 1912, Peynaud went to work at age 14 for Calvet, then the leading wine merchant in Bordeaux, and after World War II began advising many of the region's most prominent winemakers, a position that gave him immense influence and allowed him to advocate for advances that he had spent years studying and that he described in his book Connaissance et travail du vin. In later years Peynaud consulted with winemakers around the world, and his critics charged that he like the critic Robert Parker was a key factor in the increasing homogenization of wine around the world, which defenders such as the wine writer Mike Steinberger argued was a gross distortion of Peynaud's real legacy.

Eight years after his death, some of that legacy now rests on his 1983 book Le Goût du Vin, translated into English as The Taste of Wine. It remains astonishingly good; the only book on wine I've encountered that belongs in the same sentence is Kermit Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route. Peynaud has a deep respect for the place of wine in French culture that is unclouded by sentimentality. In one short section, "The Winetaster is easily influenced," he cites a study by Pasteur, a passage from Rabelais, and a lunch with a supercilious sommelier at an elite Paris restaurant who is sure that all white bordeaux are sweet (they aren't) and when confronted with a dry one says that it tastes sweet to him. The passage is typical both for its erudition and for its recognition of the immense difficulty of tasting well.    

For Peynaud, "Tasting is an act of self-examination where the winetaster stands apart from himself, looking on as his mind's eye scans fleeting impressions of wines already tasted, probing his memory for images and reference points."

Some of those reference points, of course, are smells, and like most writers on tasting Peynaud emphasizes the importance of building a mental inventory of them despite the challenges to doing so, not least the fact that "from childhood on, city life cuts us off from the profusion of tastes and smells that occur in nature."

But for Peynaud, science also provided reference points. In his work as a consultant, he was often asked to diagnose what had gone wrong with a given wine, and the smell told the story: Wine stored too close to insecticide, or made from grapes contaminated by fumes from a nearby dump where garbage was burned, or vinified in a poor process, perhaps at too high a temperature or in old, dirty  barrels. That's how winemakers taste wine now, but not how many of them tasted when Peynaud began in the business, and it remains a sensibility almost impossible for amateurs to acquire, just as football coaches see a totally different game than even very studious fans.

As immersed as Peynaud was in the science of wine, he understood, as one of his friends put it, that "nothing can really be appreciated except in its cultural context." He notes, for example, that French and German drinkers have very different perceptions of sweetness in wine. "There is a national taste, even a regional taste, and each has its own vocabulary," he wrote. "It may also be that the equivalent adjectives in the two languages do not have quite the same meaning." As a result, the ambit of any taster's knowledge is extremely limited. Even 30 years ago he could write, "No one can have studied all the world's wines, and there is no such thing as a universal taster. When judging the wines from different countries together, one ought to take into account the particular tastes of their peoples as well as their eating and drinking habits."

That sounds like something one of today's natural winemakers would say, though some of them would argue that Peynaud ushered in an era of international consultants or "flying winemakers" who inevitably lack such specialized local knowledge. But that knowledge is most valuable - perhaps only valuable - when linked to a thorough scientific understanding of how wine is made. Peynaud's descriptions of older Bordeaux shows that such comprehension need not come at the cost of a more lyrical appreciation of wine. "There is something touching about the lasting character of wine," Peynaud writes. "The bottle which stores and refines it gives it a personality at the same time. For the receptive amateur with something of the poet in him, such a wine becomes a message from the past, a continuation, a milestone, a trace, a memento."


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