Burgundy for the Senses, Bordeaux for the Mind

Tim Atkin

  • Science, Vine and Wine in Modern France by Harry Paul
    Cambridge, 355 pp, £45.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 521 49745 0

‘Without the discovery of America,’ Flaubert noted in the Dictionnaire des idées reçues, ‘we would have neither syphilis nor phylloxera.’ Both imports were catastrophic and, at one point, seemed incurable. Phylloxera was only one of a series of quasi-Biblical scourges visited on the French vignoble (oidium in 1846, downy mildew in 1878, black rot in 1885, not to mention the depredations of the Great War), but it was by far the most serious. The root-munching aphid, which was transported by steamship from its native America to Europe on infected vine cuttings, was first discovered in France by the Vaucluse Agricultural Society on a scientific field trip to the Rhône Valley in 1868. Félix Sahut, Gaston Bazille and Jules-Emile planchon were looking for the cause of the mysterious disease which had begun to kill vines in the south of France five years earlier. It was Planchon who named the insect Phylloxera vastatrix. By the end of the century, it had cost the country more than 35 billion francs – the sum needed to treat, uproot, graft and replant 2.5 million hectares of vines.

After the failure of a series of increasingly desperate remedies – injecting the soil around the vine with carbon disulphide, treatment with a syrup of horse urine, extensive flooding – the resuscitation of France’s vineyards came down to a choice between ungrafted (so-called direct-producing) hybrids and European Vitis vinifera vines grafted onto phylloxera-resistant American root-stocks. Some of these hybrids were American in origin, others were developed in Europe as a response to phylloxera by crossing European Vinifera varieties with American vine species which were resistant to the disease. The choice was by no means automatic. Hybrids may raise eyebrows in France today – the only hybrid permitted for the production of appellation contrôlée wines is Baco 22A in Armagnac and its use is being phased out – but they had many advocates in the immediate post-phylloxera world. Grape-growers were not easily convinced of the merits of grafting, which was more expensive and labour-intensive than planting hybrids. The key to the eventual triumph of grafted vines was quality: wine made from hybrids wasn’t good enough. It possessed little of the finesse of the best Vinifera-derived wines and often had a nasty, foxy smell and a coarse flavour. The thought of, say, Château Latour combining Noah, Othello and Isabelle in a less than felicitous assemblage was unthinkable to peasant and bourgeois alike. Wine remains what Barthes described as ‘une boisson totem’ in France. Despite the scientific support for grafting, notably from the University of Montpellier, and the official censure of hybrids, it was a slow retreat. During the Second World War the Vichy regime didn’t oppose hybrids, but the Nazis did. By 1958, just under a third of France’s 1.32 million hectares was still planted with hybrids. It was not until 1975 that new plantings of hybrids were outlawed for commercial purposes. Today they have all but disappeared.

Paul questions how serious the phylloxera epidemic really was, pointing out that mildew was regarded as a more serious problem in the 1880s and that yields increased to compensate for the loss of vineyards. This may be correct, but the threat of phylloxera was real enough. Nor does he give enough space to the phylloxera crisis in California, which has put paid to the belief that grafted vines are safe from the aphid’s attentions. Phylloxera has wiped out as many as half the West Coast vineyards in the last decade, even though they were planted on an AXR-1 rootstock which was thought to be resistant to the disease. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. Phylloxera has mutated and a new Biotype B has revisited destruction on a wine-producing community.

The phylloxera story has been better told elsewhere, most notably in George Ordish’s The Great Wine Blight, but Paul’s description of the work of Jean-Antoine Chaptal and Louis Pasteur, two formative figures in the emergence of oenology as a legitimate science, is less confusing. Chaptal was a chemist, industrialist and, in 1815, Napoleon’s Minister of the Interior. He also wrote L’Art de faire le vin, a turning-point in the literature of winemaking. But he is best remembered, and sometimes cursed, as the inventor of ‘chaptalisation’, the process of increasing a wine’s alcoholic content by adding sugar before or during fermentation. Chaptal, at least initially, regarded ‘sucrage’ as a way of adding to a wine’s longevity by giving it more alcohol: cynical winemakers see it as a means of lending a bit of body to light, and sometimes underripe, wines. This is not the fault of chaptalisation. As Paul rightly remarks, ‘science is powerless to prevent the prostitution of itself by the very forces of production that brought it into operation.’ Traders and governments, which relied on reliable vintages and the taxation of alcohol, were great supporters of the process. Chaptalisation was part of a move towards a new model for wine – softer, less tannic, lower in acidity and, of course, more alcoholic. (It also led to increasing levels of fraud by producers ‘stretching’ wines with sugar. In 1902, for instance, the Midi sold twice as much wine as it officially harvested.) Nevertheless, winemaking remained a very vague business in the early years of the 19th century – part tradition, part empiricism and part supposition, with a patina of science.

The man who changed all this was Louis Pasteur, whose Etudes sur le vin (1866) was enormously influential. Modern scientific oenology grew out of Pasteur’s studies of yeasts, fermentations and wine ageing. Like Chaptal, however, he is primarily associated with a single technique to which he gave his name. Wine, like milk, was heated to kill off micro-organisms. Today, thanks to better filtration techniques and cleaner cellars, pasteurisation is a good deal rarer than chaptalisation.

Paul writes about the practice of oenology in three contrasting areas: Champagne, Burgundy and the Languedoc. He is suitably critical about Champagne from the start. More than any other wine, Champagne is a product, ‘one of the world’s most successful and profitable enterprises, striking evidence of the marketability of distinction and carbon dioxide in drink’. He is immune to the region’s public relations guff. Dom Pérignon did not invent sparkling wine, though he was a brilliant winemaker, and Gaillac and Limoux have been producing vin mousseux for much longer than Champagne. Champagne was popular with the upper classes of Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries but it was not until the elimination of exploding bottles, thanks to stronger glass and a better understanding of the pressure in the bubbles, that it became commercially viable. In a year when the mousse was particularly powerful – 1842 is a good example – two million out of 14 million bottles of Champagne might end up on the cellar floor. Ever resourceful, the Champenois cleared up the glass and resold the fizz as still wine.

The next innovation was no less important: the addition of sugar, or ‘dosage’, to Champagne in the early 1800s. Anyone who has tasted a bone-dry fizz, with its austere acidity and green, attenuated fruit, will applaud this development. As the bottles stopped exploding and sales increased, so did the investment in technology, making Champagne cellars some of the most sophisticated of all. ‘If science can produce more profit,’ Paul observes, ‘the profit will produce more science.’

Much of this work was financed by the producers in Champagne. In Bordeaux and Montpellier, the twin pillars of French oenology and viticultural science today, it was largely the state which paid. And in Burgundy, the most traditional of France’s great wine regions, it was neither. Unenlightened winemakers, combined with endemic over-production and the fickle nature of the Pinot Noir grape, have always hampered Burgundy. So has reverence for tradition and cellar lore. Women are still banned from some domaines during harvest in case they should ‘turn’ a wine, but Burgundian wine-makers are better-educated and a lot less parochial than they were even twenty years ago.

Paul is clearly happier writing about Bordeaux, however, where the science is more rigorous and the academic credentials more impressive. As the old saying has it, ‘Burgundy appeals to the senses; Bordeaux appeals to the mind.’ Nor is he terribly interested in the Midi beyond the confines of Montpellier University.

The heroes of his thorough book are Bordelais in the main: Ulysse Gayon, a friend and contemporary of Pasteur’s who is known as the father of modern oenology thanks to his work in adapting Pasteurian discoveries to wine, Emile Peynaud and Jean Ribereau-Gayon. Oenology was first developed by Ribereau-Gayon and Peynaud in the laboratory of the négociants Calvet, and was made possible by advances in physical chemistry. Many winemaking phenomena became clear for the first time, not least malolactic ‘fermentation’, the secondary enzymatic reaction which converts malic to lactic acid. Without it, according to Peynaud, it is impossible to make great red wines. Ribereau-Gayon and Peynaud also challenged the Pasteurian notion that, as Paul puts it, ‘the only good microbe is a dead one.’ But in one respect they were the heirs of Pasteur. They dismissed the idea that wine was a ‘mysterious being’. God may be responsible for the weather conditions and the state of the grapes, but he doesn’t make the wine, even in France. The recognition of oenology by Bordeaux’s educational élite, with the creation of an Ecole Supérieure d’Oenologie in 1957, established the new subject.

Thanks to the work of the Bordeaux oenologists, a new type of red wine was born: rounder, fruitier and drinkable much younger. This has had a huge influence in other countries, from the United States to Australia, Italy to South Africa, the Lebanon to Portugal. The Bordeaux model has become the whole world’s, although Paul underestimates the work of research establishments outside France, especially Rose-worthy in Australia and UC Davis in California, in perfecting it. The development of cool temperature fermentation in the winery, the use of certain ‘fruity’ yeast strains, the understanding of canopy management and the influence of sunlight on grape vines in particular have helped to change the quality of the wines we drink today.

But we still have much for which to thank the French. They found a cure for phylloxera and created modern oenology out of a number of different, and not always compatible, disciplines. And they continue to supply us with some of the world’s finest, most stimulating wines.