In Part 1, I suggested that the particularity of Pepys’s Haut-Brion could have been fruit-driven, generated by the winemaking rather than by the terroir, since it’s possible the wine had been blended with wine from another terroir to preserve its high quality.
As Hugh Johnson notes, Pontac’s wealth allowed for potentially costly winemaking practices at Haut-Brion, like the discarding of faulty barrels of wine, and the risking of the vintage waiting for riper grapes, as rain and hail threatened. After all, we know that troubles with the weather plagued France and the rest of the world in this peak period of the Little Ice Age. And, here, we should keep in mind wine historian Harry Paul’s insight that small differences in winemaking can make for big differences in taste.
Yet the lack of specific evidence for what choices were in fact made in producing Haut-Brion’s wine in the 1660s leads Johnson to conclude that Pontac’s achievement may have lain in his capacities as a marketer, successful because of his elevated social position, rather than as the producer of a truly fine thing in its own right. However, if we accept that explanation, we’d have to dispute Pepys’s ability to recognize wine quality, and also doubt the judgment of Charles II and his court. Charles and his courtiers had been consuming this luxury drink since 1660, and while many of these courtiers drank too much to always be aware of quality, I’m not sure dismissiveness about their sensory discrimination is warranted, unless we think sensory discrimination itself is illusory, rather than—as I think—a skill to be acquired like any other.
Neither Rod Phillips in A Short History of Wine (2000) nor Susan Pinkard in A Revolution in Taste (2009) doubts that such past drinkers were discriminating. They both cite the rise of brandy and the seventeenth-century introduction of stronger, often sweetened, bitter drinks like coffee, tea, and chocolate as explanations for the appearance of the higher alcohol, more rounded, even “velvety” wine they propose was in Pepys’s glass. However, I wonder if the popularity of these stimulating drinks can really explain Haut-Brion’s differences, and the only more or less contemporary source that I can find for the idea that wine of the 1660s had a velvety texture comes from a tasting note in Molière’s 1670 play, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Would-Be Gentleman). In that play, the comedy inherent in wine-talk is underlined: Dorante speaks of a wine’s “sève veloutée” or “velvety taste,” but this show of expertise is comically undercut by the contradictory remark that the same wine is “armed by a greenness that isn’t too overbearing” [my translation]. The sharply acid “greenness” of unripe grapes is an unlikely descriptor for a wine whose high alcohol from ripe grapes would have contributed to its textural softness. However, that “velvety” was then in use as a wine descriptor is suggestive.
Still, there’s further, admittedly tangential, evidence in favour of keeping our minds open about the taste of 1660s Haut-Brion as fragrant and fruit-driven. Charles de Saint-Evremond, soldier, libertine, and a noted gastronome, was exiled to England in 1661. He influenced the wine tastes of English aristocrats while being ridiculed in France as one of “les costeaux,” one of the “marquis friands” or the “greedy marquis”—aristocratic gourmets who affected only to drink the wines of particular Champagne hills or terroirs. In 1674, Saint-Evremond described his favourite white wine d’Ay, one such Champagne terroir, as “the most natural of all wines, the healthiest, the most free of any gout de terroir [faults], and of an agreeableness most exquisite because of its taste of peach that’s particular to it and the highest in my opinion of all tastes” [my translation]. Peaches, expensively cultivated in noble and bourgeois orchards, had been thought “esoteric,” food historian Massimo Montanari has remarked, and continued to be snobbishly labelled a “mystery…that cannot be taught to crude people”—an attitude obviously belied by the rampant theft of such fruit by the very same “crude people.” In tasting a peach note in his wine, Saint-Evremond was not only expressing his status as one who could discern and name the unexpected in wine, he was also revealing that the seventeenth-century’s new attentiveness to the innate qualities of fruits and vegetables had made its way into thinking about wine quality, as Bonnefons had asserted in 1654 that it should.
Though Chateau Haut-Brion has a collection of historic grape varieties, as far as I know there isn’t a plan to re-create its past wines. But such an experiment could be revealing. When historians Jean-Pierre Brun and André Tchernia undertook a project of experimental archaeology and reproduced various types of ancient Roman wine as accurately as possible from surviving recipes, they discovered something interesting about Pepys’s wine too. The best aged wines in the ancient world, when they weren’t flavoured in the traditional ways with the spices and herbs decried by Bonnefons, were oxidized, making for a taste we would know best from the pungency of today’s dry sherries. As Brun and Tchernia rightly remark, oxidation—like most faults we recognize now—erases the particular notes of fruit that may have given Arnaud de Pontac’s wine its individuality or, in Brun and Tchernia’s terms, what may have given it the character that represented a break with the ancient past.
Since we’re assuming that Pontac’s wine wasn’t flavoured, and since, as noted in Part 1, the 1689 winemaking record reveals that Chateau de Pez’s wine (from a different terroir) was topping up Haut-Brion’s barrels and saving them from character-destroying oxidation, I’m claiming that it’s possible that this was going on earlier, with the aim of preserving the particularity of fine and fragrant fruit, rather than that of terroir. However, short of becoming experimental archaeologists and more directly, empirically investigating seventeenth-century wines and winemaking, we’re reduced to the sort of speculations I’ve indulged in here.
This marks the end of my introductory cycle on Pepys. My next post will be on something more contemporary, perhaps on the trouble with natural wine or on the dangers supposedly lurking in every glass of wine. Both seem worth thinking about.