Emile Peynaud

Missionary of fine wine
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The Independent Online

Emile Peynaud was the single most influential figure in transforming wine-making practices in the post-war years. His influence was most profound in his native Bordeaux, for he had a greater effect on claret than any other single man in history: he, or one of his many pupils, has transformed the wine- making on virtually every single major estate in the region.

Emile Peynaud, oenologist: born Madiran, France 1912; married (one son, one daughter); died Talence, France 18 July 2004.

Emile Peynaud was the single most influential figure in transforming wine-making practices in the post-war years. His influence was most profound in his native Bordeaux, for he had a greater effect on claret than any other single man in history: he, or one of his many pupils, has transformed the wine- making on virtually every single major estate in the region.

His character, attitude and professional status were also largely responsible for ensuring that the Viticultural Institute - later a university faculty - in Bordeaux, where he was a professor until 1977, became virtually the only educational institution in the world which had an entirely beneficial effect on wine-making in its region. For it was both practical and not authoritarian - a quality particularly unusual among French educational institutions - as well as scientifically prestigious. Peynaud covered the whole spectrum as researcher, lecturer, practitioner, as missionary of fine wine throughout the world.

But he did not confine his activities to the Gironde, for he spread his advice throughout the world of wine. Peynaud was a self-made man in the Victorian manner, rising from humble origins to worldwide fame through a combination of talent and continuing hard work. Throughout a career that spanned over 60 years he was totally dedicated to his duty: he gave the impression that he allowed himself to taste wines purely for pleasure only after he had retired. His main aim was, he wrote, "to replace the oenologist's previous curative role with that of someone who prevents the illness in the first place". Before his arrival treatments were often applied too late, resulting in the loss of large quantities of wine which rapidly turned into vinegar.

He started work at the age of 14 in January 1928, in the laboratory of Calvet, then Bordeaux's leading wine merchants, and stayed there until 1949 - although during the Second World War he was a prisoner of war working on a German farm for nearly five years.

Thanks largely to his supervisor at the Viticultural Institute, Jean Ribéreau-Gayon, the grandson of one of Pasteur's closest collaborators, Peynaud found the time to study for a doctorate. This proved of enormous help to winemakers the world over, giving them greater control over their work by explaining malolactic fermentation, the process by which the harsher malic acid in the wine is converted into the milder lactic acid. This, as he himself realised,

created a new type of winemaking. It became part of normal winemaking and produced a different type of wine which was much nearer what the winemaker was looking for.

He is best known for his work as an adviser, a role which started when he pedalled round the vineyards in the Graves just south of Bordeaux in the late 1940s and continued for another 40 years. His influence spread after he acquired his first motor car in 1952 and accelerated after a heat wave during the 1959 harvest resulted in accidents and led winemakers to equip themselves properly. Their success with the equally difficult conditions in 1961 proved how quickly they had learnt the lesson.

From then on he was regarded as almost infallible in the Gironde. The key to his success was that he wasn't a frightening, remote, scientific figure, but his ruddy, substantial physique reflected his humble origins rather than his professorial status. "He looked like a cellar master," said Jean-Michel Cazes of a highly regarded estate, Château Lynch-Bages, "and he talked like one." This was no accident; he had realised that "my job was to teach them how to do theirs properly", so he deliberately avoided scientific terms - for instance he called malolactic fermentation merely "second fermentation".

Despite his doctorate and his innumerable consultancies his most important work was probably as the author of a number of influential books that combined clarity and authority, including Le Goût du vin ( The Taste of Wine, 1980) and Connaissance et travail du vin ( Knowing and Making Wine, 1982). At his famous " Cours de Lundi" which he held every Monday from November to May every year from 1949 until his retirement from his university chair in 1977, Peynaud taught generations of winemakers, tasters and château owners the basic ground rules for winemaking and wine-tasting.

But he earned his biggest triumph, what the French would call "his field marshal's baton", at Château Margaux after he had retired. The vintages he supervised at the château in the decade after 1978 not only resulted in magnificent wines. His work also called into question previous classifications of the clarets of different appellations by generations of British "connoisseurs".

Until wines were bottled at the château (which meant in most cases the 1960s), Bordeaux merchants like Peynaud's employers doctored even the finest wines so that they confirmed the styles already attributed to them by British drinkers. During Peynaud's 20 years at Calvet not a single bottle of wine, however distinguished the name, left the cellars without at least 10 per cent of stronger wines, from the Rhône, Spain or even Algeria. British drinkers assumed that the wines of Pauillac were inevitably firm and tannic and those from the whole commune of Margaux, including, indeed especially, Château Margaux, were soft, velvety, "feminine" - adjectives that could not properly be applied to any of the post-1978 wines from the château itself. As Peynaud put it, "in this appellation, as in many others, one comes across a wide variety of terroirs, which produce varied wines, hard and soft."

As a result the older members of the British trade distrusted him, claimed that his wines had been homogenised, "Peynaudised" as they put it, whereas in fact he had removed the layers of makeup applied over the generations by the Calvets and their colleagues and their like.

His influence was by no means confined to Bordeaux. Indeed one of his greatest triumphs was to identify that Mas de Daumas Gassac, a small estate in Languedoc, had the right soil and conditions for producing great wines from Bordeaux's grape varieties. He worked for Mercier and Veuve Clicquot in Champagne and for a number of Parisian merchants to improve their vins de table. Outside France he updated the winemaking in countries as far afield as Greece and Portugal. He single-handedly modernised much of Rioja and introduced winemakers in most of Spain's other regions to the 20th century. His links with Pedro Domecq in Jerez led him to Mexico. He was confident, he said, that "our method of working is exportable, it knows no frontiers, it can be applied by anyone provided only that they work at it".

For, although he shared his fellow countrymen's belief that terroir - the soil, the sub-soil and the climate - is the key to successful winemaking, he was far more open-minded than many Frenchmen. He was confident that throughout the world "there are still viticultural sites to discover", and declared that some of the Californian chardonnays he tasted which had been aged in Burgundian oak were "pure marvels".

For, as he often repeated,

Wine is the reflection of the degree of refinement achieved by a particular civilisation. It depends on those who make it and those who drink it. Tastes and methods of work are in a constant state of evolution. So it is likely that within a few decades, with other vineyards, other oenologists, other methods, wines will be different from ours.

Nicholas Faith