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.
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.