Emile Peynaud is one of the most important figures in the history of wine. Born in Bordeaux in 1912, he studied oenology at its university in the 1930s and after World War II spread a scientific approach to winemaking as a consultant to many of the great Bordeaux houses and, in later years, to vignerons around France and across the globe.
Critics of Peynaud argue that his advocacy of modern technique and wide-ranging consulting, which became a model for later “flying winemakers,” helped lead to a standardization of wines from different regions in the same way that Robert Parker’s wine scoring has. But while Parker succeeded by publishing a sort of Consumer’s Report of high-end wine and wrote with the all of the stiffness that one would expect from that publication, Peynaud communicated his ideas with style. His books Connaissance et travail du vin and Le Goût du vin are classic works on winemaking and wine tasting, activities that in his view were inextricably linked. They have been translated into English; his collection of essays Le vin et les jours has not, but it evidences the same intellectual rigor, arrogance, and gift for the aperçu.
Peynaud balanced a typically French respect for hierarchy and tradition with a scientist’s willingness to experiment. He worried about losing “the personality of terroir,” and believed that the great wine regions should be wary of changing their styles to appeal to the lowest common denominator – or, as he put it, “to the thirst of other throats or to certain boldnesses in presentation,” which reads like a veiled shot at Parker. But Peynaud also loved the freedom of New World winemaking, where “the future is open to all experiences, and oenology has an open field. I am attracted by these situations without constraints.”
A good chunk of Le vin et les jours is devoted to the history of winemaking, and here the key figure is Louis Pasteur, for whom faulty wine was a model for human disease: “When one sees beer and wine undergo profound alterations because the liquids have given asylum to microscopic organisms,” Pasteur once wrote, “how can one not be obsessed by the thought that events of the same order can and must be present in men and animals.”
That insight animates modern oenology. If a wine tastes off, there must be a flaw in the way the wine was made that can be identified and corrected. An early solution to microbial spoilage, of course, was pasteurization, which also has the effect of removing much of a wine’s subtlety. Later, Peynaud writes, “the rational addition of sulfites emerged as a more effective practice,” since sulfites kill bacteria and unwanted yeast. The use of sulfites has become one of the most controversial subjects in the wine world, but it was adopted to solve a serious problem, and can be minimized by an improved understanding of how wine is made.
Peynaud acknowledges that new styles of winemaking have not always led to a better product and sometimes have degraded a producer’s wine in the process of abandoning older ways of doing things. Mechanization, he emphasizes, is not synonymous with progress.
Despite the influence of science, winemakers are still confronted with many choices, starting with how to train their vines and when to pick their grapes – or which varietals to plant in the first place. Here, the consultant plays a valuable role by accumulating experience that no single producer could. Peynaud writes, “The hundreds of cuvees vinified every year, of all crus and all varietals, have been an unequaled field of observation. Lacking the ability to experiment rationally in this area, I engaged in comparative vinification. In thirty harvests, if one has the chemist’s observant eye and the taster’s trained palate, one will likely have encountered practically every kind of case and be ready from then on for the unforeseen.”
One of Peynaud’s first harvests was 1934, when in the course of an experiment on bottling in a Medoc laboratory he wrote in his own hand labels for bottle of Barsac from Chateau Dudon. One of his friends sends him a bottle of the sweet wine when he’s in a German POW camp in Wurtenberg in 1942. The commanding officer, a model of German humorlessness and efficiency, is nonetheless from Neustadt in Pfalz, a region where Riesling is produced, and understands that Peynaud has helped make the wine, so he gives him the bottle and orders him to consume its contents as quickly as possible.
“He even gave me a corkscrew,” writes Peynaud, who shared the gift with French and Belgian friends. “This wine from the past, I was sure, had come to revive me in my exile by speaking to me of liberty, of the future, and by rekindling hope within me. They all awaited me at home, my friend and others, to write works of oenology together. For a long time – believe it if you will – I could not taste a Barsac without a little emotion. It is the only wine which once made me weep with joy.”