French Wine Expert : Tasting Insights From the Outside: Peynaud Puts It in Writing

Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Emile Peynaud is the hottest name in wine in all of France, yet he is neither a chateau proprietor nor a vineyard owner, nor does his name appear on any French wine label. However, since his retirement as director of the research department in enology at the University of Bordeaux, he has, as an independent consultant, influenced French wine making more than any other individual.

He has been responsible for the revamping of wine-making techniques in hundreds of European wineries, including celebrated first growth chateaux such as Margaux. And while some authorities are critical of the "Peynaudization" of Bordeaux, a complaint made in jest, perhaps, he has brought faltering wineries to modern premium standards and revitalized Margaux to the point where it now challenges and in some years is superior to the other first growths.

New Wine Book Available in English

Although he does some winery counseling here, Peynaud is not well-known in the United States. That fact is likely to change because of his new book, "Knowing and Making Wine" published by John Wiley & Sons and translated into English by Alan Spencer. Obviously written from a French point of view, the book provides, in my opinion, interesting tasting insights and concepts for the consumer as well as the enologist.

For the non-technically trained wine buff, there are many easy-to-read chapters on methods for tasting and a listing of gustatory characteristics, plus an appropriate vocabulary; all vital to perfecting tasting skills, and the ability to better understand today's every increasing and intriguing back labels.

He defines wine tasting as the appreciation by sight, taste and smell of the sensory properties of a wine. He believes there are four phases of discernment: observing through the senses, describing what is perceived, comparing the perceptions with known standards and then judging the wine. Sound simple? "It really is," he said. "For drinking to become tasting, it often only requires a little effort of concentration and an analysis of the impressions perceived."

An important need for the consumer as well as the professional, he noted, is the ability to explain the taste and odor of wine in relation to its complexity and diversity. What becomes confusing Peynaud claims, "is that analysts have reported more than 500 compounds, and more refined research techniques are constantly discovering new ones." So what should a consumer look for? "We must admit that the most important factors from a qualitative standpoint are those that affect taste and odor and yet are the least well-known.

Wine Has Greatest Variety of Taste

"Wine is one of the natural food products, having the greatest variety of taste. All manner of drinks made from grapes are given the name wine, yet have few characteristics in common. Each wine has its own standards of quality; for each there exists a scale of value. Thus you do not use the same code of reference in tasting a Champagne, a Medoc, a Chianti, a Sherry, a table or a dessert wine. They are not judged by the same standards. One of the great difficulties in explaining taste and odor is precisely appraising each wine within its own category."

This concept is worth emphasizing. Judging a wine by regional standards requires extensive experience or at least reasonable exposure to the area's wines. If perceptions are not consistent with regional criteria, then attempting to describe its taste is without reason. That a French expert like Peynaud is now recognizing this concept makes it possible that both consumers and wine professionals will refrain from arbitrary rejection of otherwise good wines and without first sampling 10 or 20 bottles of the same type and region.

On another note, Peynaud suggests a beginning taster should be able to perceive four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter; the rest are of tactile perception or chemical origin. Since wine contains all four basic tastes, it should be relatively easy to identify. A sweet taste is provided by alcohol and, where present, its sugars; a sour taste comes from free organic acids; a salty taste from the salts; and a bitter taste comes from the phenolic components generally referred to as tannins. These tastes are not perceived at the same time, but after some exposure, become apparent one from the other.

Sensitive Mouth Areas

He identifies sensitive mouth areas for recognizing tastes such as the tip of the tongue for sweet taste, the sides and underneath for sour, the edges--and not on the central surface--for salt, and for bitter taste, back part of the tongue, an area that is brought into contact only when swallowing.

"When tasting a wine," he explains, "the first impression (the first two or three seconds) is always agreeable. It is a mellow, sweetish sensation due mostly to the alcohol. Bit by bit the other flavors intervene, masking the sweet taste. The finish, in which sour and bitter tastes dominate, can end up leaving a less agreeable sensation after 8 to 10 seconds. Wines of great quality maintain their pleasant impression to the end."

His discussion of the characteristics of the odor of wines is especially significant and should go a long way towards removing any intimidation a new taster feels as he sniffs his way through a wine. He points out that the first impression of a wine is that of the odor even more than taste, but yet it belongs to the realm of the "ineffable, the indescribable."

Find Dominant Shade

"A taster must go to some length," he stressed "to find a dominant shade or note. It is, by the agreeable character of its odor that we recognize a good wine. We must differentiate between aroma and bouquet; the former refers to the odor of a young wine, whereas bouquet is only acquired through aging.

Peynaud contends the first quality required of a wine's odor is finesse, which he defines as an agreeable odor of fruit or flower consistent with the true-to-type character of its scent. It is essential the taster, he added, in defining a wine as fruity, to conjure the idea of what fruit has been detected; not necessarily grapes, but perhaps apple, peach, plum, raspberry, etc. He pointed out how oxidation can affect the odor of a wine.

In a chapter devoted to tasting exercises, he explains how to compose sample liquids to present the four basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter.

Word of Caution

A word of caution he noted, "is the importance of the power of suggestion. It is easy for the palate to be influenced into making mistakes . . . wine tasting and evaluation should be a personal judgment made independently and, in many cases, can be better than those that are rendered by the so-called expert."

While Peynaud's book may tell you more than you ever wanted to know about microbiological controls, lactic spoilage and thermal vinification, there is still a barrel full of consumer-oriented information from an acknowledged wine expert.

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