Imagining Pepys’s Haut-Brion, Part 1

 

Precisely what the Chateau Haut-Brion Pepys drank in April 1663 tasted like isn’t known, because his description of it was brief and his attention turned elsewhere too soon, but we can begin to imagine it. Pepys’s enthusiasm for its “good and most particular taste” marked it as an outlier in his experience, different from those generic—because similarly sour—wines he’d encountered in towns throughout England. Why, we might also wonder, was Pepys’s Haut-Brion so particularly good?

In Inventing Wine: A New History (2012), Paul Lukacs assumes that Haut-Brion proprietor Arnaud de Pontac’s innovation was his refusal to blend his estate’s distinctive wines; thus he asks, referring to Pepys’s tasting note, “Where could that distinction or particularity have come from, except from the place itself?” The obvious response is that it could have come from winemaking. As we lack records of practices at Haut-Brion for the period, it’s not clear that the wine wasn’t blended to improve or maintain its quality. Later in the century, in fact, we know Haut-Brion barrels were topped up with wine from another estate owned by the Pontacs, the Chateau de Pez, north of Bordeaux in Saint-Estephe, an entirely different terroir to Haut-Brion’s in Pessac-Léognan. Lukacs may be projecting our contemporary ideals of terroir-driven purity back into the seventeenth century.

So, on April 10, 1663, in the Royal Oak Tavern, did Pepys taste a fruit-driven purity rather than a terroir-driven one? It’s possible, though the paucity of evidence means that, like everybody, I’m left to speculate (while constrained by the evidence, of course). However, I think it’s significant—for wine history as well as for culinary history—that as scholar Susan Pinkard has explained, a transformation took place in French cooking in the seventeenth century that involved delicacy and refinement. The works of Nicolas de Bonnefons, premier valet du roi, both his Le Jardinier Francois (1651) and Les Délices de la Campagne (1654), played roles in that change. Speaking to the bourgeois and upper classes during the rebellion known as the Fronde, and during the serious climate disruption of the Little Ice Age that had, from 1648 to 1650, pushed grape harvests into October, Bonnefons found a receptive audience, one disposed to agree when he said that of all the senses, taste was the most delicious and necessary to life.

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Bonnefons’s central idea was that the cultivation of orchards and gardens could yield fruits and vegetables that didn’t require the complex mixture of spices and seasoning cooking had demanded since antiquity, spices that by then came in packages one could buy, combining pepper, cinnamon, ginger, saffron and cloves. On the contrary, “Food should taste like what it is,” cabbage of cabbage, peas of peas, and so on, Bonnefons asserted. He declared that wine, to which one could add cinnamon, lavender, raspberry juice and numerous other flavourings, thereby became just another “ragoust” or stew of tastes, and that habit, he concluded, only masked its “gout naturel,” it “only disguised Wine, without increasing its generous goodness.”

Are there other reasons to think a fragrant, fruit-driven and likely fault-free taste defined Haut-Brion’s innovation? I think so. Arnaud de Pontac, Haut-Brion’s owner and president of Bordeaux’s highest law court, lived in Bordeaux’s grandest house, and was a man of taste, an “honnete homme.” This, Susan Pinkard says, meant he was somebody who cultivated the civilized virtues identified in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (1528), a conduct manual that in French translation was then very popular among the nobility. Castiglione advised that while always relying on one’s own senses and judgment, one should be able to tell the difference between the composer Josquin des Prés’s music and another’s, just as one should, in tasting a particular wine, be able to distinguish it from another lesser wine. Committed to paying attention to the qualities of music and wine, to distinctions in conduct and the law, what might Pontac have insisted on from his doubtless talented, if unnamed winemaker? And as they created this new luxury wine Pontac exported to England and served in Pontack’s Head, the London tavern he was to open in 1666, what winemaking manuals might they have consulted?

Present-day winemaker and collector of historical texts on winemaking, Sean Thackrey, has remarked on the fact that apart from the brief instructions on winemaking in Bonnefons’s Les Délices, Olivier de Serres’s Le Théatre d’Agriculture, published in 1600, seems to have been the essential text on winemaking for the period. And there we already find the technical know-how to make good, even fine wine. In Serres, after all, there’s a recognizable, even proto-modern concern for ripeness, an unease with the haphazard mixing of grape varieties in vineyards, the calling for the exclusion of leaves, rotten and raisined grapes, the use of boiling water to clean vats and barrels, the burning of sulfur to purify barrels and preserve the wine, and the topping up and sealing of barrels after fermentation. All these measures and methods stemmed from the accumulated wisdom of many centuries of observation and experience in winemaking. One starts to see why no one thought Serres’s thorough and sage advice needed replacing. Naturally, the lack of a true understanding of fermentation, and ignorance of the microbial causes of spoilage, easily led to problems, faults and disasters of winemaking that nothing could remedy. And yet, with much care and some luck, wine that we would now recognize as fine—such as Pepys’s Haut-Brion— was manifestly possible.

To be continued in my next post, which touches on sensory discrimination, the libertine Charles de Saint-Evremond, and experimental archaeology.

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Why Pepys Was First

Wine historians haven’t seriously sought to answer the question I posed in my last post: Why was Pepys, rather than a wine connoisseur, the first to pen a description of early modern fine wine?

The two historians who have the most to say about Pepys and wine—Hugh Johnson and his French counterpart, René Pijassou—think the answer lies in Pepys’s affection for the new and the fashionable, and it’s true that in 1663 Chateau Haut-Brion was both those things. But to explain his description of fine wine as mere fashion-consciousness is too glib. Rather, since Pepys’s tasting note appears in his diary, digging into diary-writing as a genre and considering his unique take on diaries yields a deeper, better answer. And I think Pepys’s genuine interest in natural philosophy, or what we now call science, is more significant than his attraction to the fashionable.

Pepys’s commitment to science, and the traces of that in his diary, hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Instead, a strong sense of disapproval has shadowed Pepys’s diary from the day of its discovery among the three thousand books he left to his Cambridge College, Magdalene, and this distaste persists, perhaps surprisingly, in our wine historians’ thinking. While Pepys’s biographer, Claire Tomalin, is unequivocally enthusiastic about the diary and likens his literary achievement to that of Chaucer, Dickens and Proust, Johnson finds the work “peculiar,” and Pijassou labels the diary and its author “cynique et débauché.”

However, to say the diary is cynical and debauched is to miss clues that it was an experiment. Between 1660 and 1669, Pepys wrote the diary’s 1.25 million words in shorthand for privacy’s sake. It contained set-pieces, now famed for their vividness, of events such as the Great Fire of London of 1666, and it also included scenes from his business, social and scientific lives: descriptions of wine and the contents of his wine cellar; accounts of fights with his wife and visits to the Royal Society; the slight but evocative scene of stopping by his vintner’s to watch wine bottles decorated with his crest being filled; graphic depictions of his sex life and his horror at being caught in flagrante by his wife (“…the greatest sorrow to me that ever I knew in this world,” he grieved). So, I’d say Pepys’s diary was more keenly, startlingly observant than cynically debauched; the “debauchery” was just another true-to-life element in the richly varied and textured life he portrayed there.

That Pepys went further than contemporaries in his depiction of all aspects of life is apparent in a comparison of his diary with that of John Evelyn, Pepys’s great friend and, like Pepys, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Evelyn’s diary was intended to be read by his family and descendants, and it registered a far narrower, more decorous range of experience than did Pepys’s. He spoke of valuing the “Pleasantness of Taste” of wine in safely general terms, judged “incomparable” the wine he had pressed for himself on a trip to Italy, and described Haut-Brion simply as the “best of our Bordeaux wines.” There’s no tasting note for Haut-Brion, and little of Pepys’s specificity about his own experience and pleasure. Indeed, the historian Roy Strong remarks that from Evelyn’s diary we might never have known that Evelyn had a sense of humour; it’s only from Pepys that we know that at dinner one September evening in 1665, it was Evelyn who “did make us all die almost from laughing.”

Diaries became popular for the first time in the seventeenth century, and along with the related rise of the genres of memoir and autobiography, they opened windows onto previously closed private lives. In The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (1987), Colin Campbell remarks that the taste for diaries grew out of the Protestant emphasis on the inner life of individuals. The confessions of sins and yearnings became absorbing stories for others as a gauge of their own progress on virtue’s way. Confessional habits not only created a new kind of literature, they also encouraged the birth of a new kind of inwardly focussed self. Campbell points out that emotions, moods, and tastes “were re-located ‘within’ individuals, as states which emanated from some internal source…,” rather than being seen as aspects of the world beyond the self.

The tendency of the modern self to reveal private details and inner states generated criticism. For example, after the publication of Sir Thomas Browne’s 1642 Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor), a spiritual memoir known to Pepys, Sir Kenelm Digby publicly rebuked Browne for the sharing of trivial details. Digby—a courtier, natural philosopher, recipe collector, and inventor of the stronger modern wine bottle—questioned Browne’s discussion of his diet: “What should I say of his making so particular a Narration of personal things, and private thoughts…the knowledge whereof cannot much conduce to any mans betterment?” In the previous century, similar accusations of pointlessness had greeted essayist Michel de Montaigne’s revelations of his shifting tastes for white and red wine.

What’s especially significant here is that diaries, and all the new forms of self-revelation, were thus bound to break the ancient prohibition against speaking and writing about what Cicero called “small things”: the private, fleeting, low, bodily pleasures of food, wine, and sex. The rules of rhetoric only allowed for the representation of “small things” in the correspondingly low forms of comedy and satire. Pepys’s willingness to describe his sex life, and to note Haut-Brion’s “most particular taste,” along with the fact that he, as an individual, had “never met with” it before, was un-classical and modern. It was modern to make taste or flavour an experience worth savouring in one’s inner world, in one’s imagination and in memory, as Pepys did.

No one quite knows why Pepys began the diary, but Tomalin offers as plausible reasons his desire to keep busy, his recent fateful survival of a major operation (without anesthetic) for a bladder stone, writerly ambition, and unbounded curiosity about himself. I think Tomalin may be closer to the mark when she suggests the influence of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the great promoter of the scientific method, who urged travellers to use diaries as a handy tool of observation. But I think Pepys, who had a telescope on his roof and a microscope in his study, and who first visited the Royal Society in 1661, was doing something inspired by the concept of historia.  (Tomalin hints at this in her epilogue but doesn’t name and develop it.) The term, as Gianna Pomata and Nancy Siraisi explain in Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe (2005), meant a “collection of observations”—empirical knowledge gained through painstaking, direct observation that was at the heart of seventeenth-century science—rather than the study of the past that the English word “history” evokes for us. What else was Pepys doing in his diary than writing an historia, gathering observations of his life and the world he knew in the unsparing fashion of the scientist? Many of the scholars and friends around him were producing such “histories,” and an important programme (also inspired by Bacon) at the Royal Society was a “history” of the trades, one of which was a history of vintners, really a report on the faults in wines and their remedies, the “mysteries” employed by vintners to make wines less “stinking.”

Thus, Pepys was first to write a tasting note of early modern fine wine because in his diary he was secretly writing a “history” of himself, and Haut-Brion was one of countless particulars he found himself observing and bending the rules of politeness to record. He wrote of his experience with such tradition-breaking freedom that when his diary was first published in 1825, it was bowdlerized and re-written, with many descriptions of food, wine, and all those of sex, wiped away. I don’t think anybody has noticed or thought to comment before now that this meant that Pepys’s Haut-Brion remark remained unpublished until the late 1870s, and the first published reference I know of is in George Saintsbury’s 1920 Notes on a Cellar Book. The diary itself was only published in unexpurgated form in 1970, when the first volumes finally began to appear, released by a change in attitudes and obscenity law, though we’ve seen that Pijassou in the 1970s, Johnson in the 1980s, remained staunchly disapproving.

My next post, likely the final one on Pepys, will be devoted to how Haut-Brion was made in 1662, and what we know and can imagine of its taste.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.