‘The Forefather of Modern Oenology’: Émile Peynaud
‘The Forefather of Modern Oenology’: Émile Peynaud
The science of winemaking, viticulture, and oenology has been transformed over the past two centuries. As recently as the eighteenth century most winemakers, even in France, used very basic methods to produce their products. There was some awareness of how grapes could be grown effectively, what the most sensible fermentation practices were and that glass was the best way of storing wine in the longer term, but the scientific approach was still in its infancy.
That has all changed over the past 200 years, driven by the emergence of wine institutes in France, California, Italy, and Australia, among other countries. Acclaimed oenologists have emerged from these centers of higher learning. But as important as many of them have been, none has been as significant as Émile Peynaud, the man who has been feted as ‘the forefather of modern oenology’. Here we examine his life and career.
Émile Peynaud was born on the 29th of June 1912 in Madiran in the Occitan region of southern France, in the shadow of the Pyrenees. His career in viticulture began when he was still a teenager. At age 15 he acquired a position at the Bordeaux-based wine trading house Calvet, which had been in operation since the mid-nineteenth century. There he was taken under the wing of Jean Ribéreau-Gayon, a chemical engineer whose family had been heavily involved in the development of the science of viticulture for decades.
His father, Ulysses, for instance, had worked with Louis Pasteur, the famed scientist who in the 1850s had succeeded in proving the involvement of microorganisms in fermentation. Under Ribéreau-Gayon’s guidance, Peynaud began to develop a serious interest in the science of winemaking during the 1930s.
Career at the University of Bordeaux
Peynaud’s early career, like those of so many other young men and women in Europe and elsewhere, was interrupted by the eruption of the Second World War in 1939, though southern France was spared much of the devastation experienced by the north during the conflict. Once peace was established in 1945 Peynaud went on to complete a doctorate at the famed Institut d’Oenologie at the University of Bordeaux, one of the most revered institutions of viticultural studies in the whole world, second only to the University of Montpellier.
Following the completion of his Ph.D., Peynaud went to work at Bordeaux, attaining a chair as Professor of Oenology in due course. He would teach there throughout his career down to his retirement in 1990 at the age of 78, in the process mentoring many other accomplished viticulturists of the subsequent generation such as Michel Rolland.
Writings and Consultancy
Peynaud’s career resulted in the publication of hundreds of articles and papers over the course of several decades on myriad matters relating to viticulture and oenology. There were numerous books as well, two of which, Conaissance et Travail du Vin (1971), translated and published in English as Knowing and Making Wine, and Le Gut du Vin (1983), or The Taste of Wine, achieved almost biblical status amongst winemakers.
Yet his consultancy work over the years became even more prolific. Peynaud was hired by scores of major French wineries from the 1950s onwards to consult on how they were producing their vintages. For instance, in 1973 the owner of Lynch-Bages, Jean-Michel Cazes, hired Peynaud to help the struggling winery, whose cellars had become contaminated by bacterial spoilage and the old vats made a second fermentation impossible. Peynaud turned the winery around and did so in a diplomatic fashion, winning over the established cellar master there to the changes he wished to implement. A notable role came a few years later in 1978 when André Mentzelopoulos, who had recently bought the Château Margaux winery, hired Peynaud to introduce wide-ranging reforms.
Throughout his long career, Peynaud became renowned for his technical innovations, which included his discussions of how fermentation temperatures needed to be controlled more closely to produce a finer wine, the benefits of shorter maceration, and more conservative pressing of the grape skin in the wine press.
A particularly notable aspect of Peynaud’s innovations was his contribution to the science of malolactic fermentation or malolactic conversion. This involves the conversion of strong malic acid, which is naturally present in newly fermented wine into lactic acid and carbon dioxide, with the goal of reducing the overall acidity of the wine. When Peynaud began his work at Bordeaux in the late 1940s it was widely believed that malolactic conversion was a sickness in the wine, whereas over the next several decades Peynaud made French winemakers realise that malolactic conversion was a process that could result in better wines if it was encouraged in a controlled manner.
Philosophy of Taste
But perhaps Peynaud’s greatest legacy is his philosophy of taste, as detailed at length in The Taste of Wine. This aimed not just to educate the palates of winemakers, but of all wine drinkers, showing a great awareness of the symbiotic nature of producer and customer. Given all of this, it is unsurprising that Peynaud is revered today as ‘the forefather of modern oenology’. He died in the summer of 2004 at Talence near Bordeaux at 92 years of age.
The Taste of Wine: One of Émile Peynaud’s most acclaimed books, and certainly his most well-known, was Le Gout de Vin, published in France in 1983, and then translated and published in English as The Taste of Wine in 1991. This explores the physiology of the senses, the role of memory and how analysis and training of one’s perception of the taste of wine are essential to modern winemaking and expertise. It also provides practical guidance on statistical interpretations, notes on wine vocabulary and tasting tools. It has since come to be considered the definitive text on wine-tasting and the evaluation of different wines.
29 June 1912 – On in this day in 1912 Émile Peynaud was born in Madiran in the Occitan region of France near the Pyrenees. Peynaud would go on to enjoy one of the most esteemed careers in modern viticulture and oenology. Having completed his PhD at the University of Bordeaux in the aftermath of the Second World War he taught there for over forty years. During this time he published many acclaimed works such as Knowing and Making Wine and The Taste of Wine. He also revolutionised many aspects of viticulture and oenology, pioneering methods in areas such as malolactic fermentation and the benefits of shorter maceration of the grape and moderate pressing of the skin. Today he is acclaimed as ‘the forefather of modern oenology’, the science of winemaking.
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 ‘Peynaud, Émile’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); Per-Henrik Mansson, ‘Émile Peynaud, who influenced winemaking around the world, dies at 92’, Wine Spectator, 21 July 2004; C. Parnell, ‘Émile Peynaud: Man of the Year’, in Decanter (March, 1990), pp. 36–40.
 Per-Henrik Mansson, ‘Émile Peynaud, who influenced winemaking around the world, dies at 92’, Wine Spectator, 21 July 2004; C. Parnell, ‘Émile Peynaud: Man of the Year’, in Decanter (March, 1990), pp. 36–40.