Fine Wine and Samuel Pepys


By Stéphane Beauroy

I’m naming this blog after a famous wine-tasting note written by Samuel Pepys over three hundred and fifty years ago. Pepys (1633-1703) was a modernizer of the Royal Navy, an MP, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, but he’s now best remembered as the author of his uniquely frank diary  where on April 10, 1663, he wrote: “…drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.”

I first read this tasting note in Hugh Johnson’s The Story of Wine (1989), a book I’ve come to see as a high point of centuries of English wine connoisseurship inaugurated by Pepys’s remark. Yet neither Johnson, nor French wine historian René Pijassou, considers Pepys a connoisseur. They’re right, because while Pepys was a hedonist and a wine lover whose excesses led to vows to abstain from wine altogether, he was finally more passionate about music than he was about food and drink.

Pepys was closer to what contemporary wine scientists, Angus Hughson and Robert Boakes, in their 2009 article “Passive Perceptual Learning in Relation to Wine,” call an “intermediate” wine drinker. This, Hughson and Boakes explain, is a drinker for whom frequent or daily exposure to wines—Pepys once remarked that he’d drunk sour wine “a hundred times in some of the best inland market towns”—leads to a more acute discrimination of faults and flavours, but who isn’t a connoisseur because of a lack of “explicit knowledge” of wine and winemaking. And yet, Pepys was paying attention to that “good and most particular” wine and thought it worth a description.

Pepys was perhaps primed for his recognition of fine wine in January 1663, just a few months before his “Ho Bryan” note, by his wealthy colleague, Thomas Povey, a wine connoisseur avant la lettre. In the diary he tells of going to Povey’s dinner party, and seeing “delicate pictures” on the walls, “delicate horses” in the stables, and a strikingly elaborate wine cellar, “where upon several shelves there stood bottles of all sorts of wine, new and old, with labells pasted on each bottle, and in the order and plenty as I never saw books in a bookseller’s shop…” Unfortunately, we don’t hear of the delicate liquids in these bottles, but Pepys may have been too overwhelmed by the all-encompassing display of taste to leave us a “reading” of the taste of these wines at dinner.

Pepys’s description of a fine wine was to come three months later. For Johnson and Pijassou, his significance is that, having mentioned wine throughout the diary under the general rubrics “wine,” or “Claret,” he then got geographically precise in a history-making way by highlighting “Ho Bryan”—Chateau Haut-Brion—then a new, but now a legendary Bordeaux wine. In the pages of his diary, Pepys thus became the first to refer to a specific Bordeaux estate where the wine was produced.

However, since 2013, when wine historian Charles Ludington pointed to the cellar book of King Charles II and an entry in June 1660 for (an Italianized version of Haut-Brion) “Hobriono,” we’ve known that Pepys wasn’t first in quite that way. And, in any case, Asa Brigg’s history of the chateau, Haut-Brion: An Illustrious Lineage (1994), suggests that a far earlier citing of Haut-Brion could be found one day, since sixteenth-century contracts for wine sales already required the documentation of the place of origin for the wines along with the owners’ names. Still, no aristocratic drinker at Charles II’s wine-loving court left posterity a description of Haut-Brion. As Ludington says, Pepys did, composing history’s earliest tasting note of Haut-Brion using the glowing terms granted that estate’s wines ever since.

How, then, did Samuel Pepys, a man who wasn’t a wine connoisseur, come to be the first to record his impression of early modern fine wine? That’s the question I’ll try to answer in my next post on Pepys.