Emile Peynaud, Who Influenced Winemaking Around the World, Dies at 92

The French enologist consulted for estates from Bordeaux to California and taught generations of winemakers to raise their standards.
Jul 21, 2004

Emile Peynaud, the legendary French enologist who helped modernize Bordeaux and improve the quality of wines worldwide, died July 18, at the age of 92, after suffering from Parkinson's disease for several years. He was buried today in a church outside Bordeaux.

Peynaud is widely viewed as the father of modern enology in Bordeaux; with his books and consulting business, the University of Bordeaux professor helped raise the standards of winemaking in Europe and in the New World. Two books, The Taste of Wine and Knowing and Making Wine, became classics read by consumers as well as wine professionals.

"His importance reached way beyond Bordeaux. He was the world's most influential enologist," Paul Pontallier, director of first-growth Château Margaux, said after the funeral.

Friends, family, winemakers and former colleagues and students turned out this morning to pay a last homage to Peynaud at the funeral in Talence (a suburb south of Bordeaux), where he lived. Peynaud is survived by his wife, Yvonne; a son, Jean-Pierre; a daughter, Danièle, and five grandchildren.

Among Peynaud's numerous achievements in the world of wine, he was successful in convincing many proprietors of the importance of harvesting fully ripe grapes; aging the wine in clean, and often new, oak barrels; accepting low acid levels in the grapes and wines; and controlling temperatures in the cellars, especially during fermentation. Peynaud was a leading researcher in methods to stabilize wines, both whites and reds.

His medicine was tough to swallow for many estates, as it required major changes. The châteaus were used to harvesting early to protect their grapes from rot and to obtain high acid levels, which acted as a preservative against spoilage. Protection against spoilage was a concern because the châteaus used old oak vats that developed microbes, which could lead to off odors.

Soon, it became evident that the "Peynaud style" produced richer, riper, rounder wines. Lower acid levels made the wines more accessible, and more enjoyable, when they were young. New oak barriques and temperature-controlled equipment reduced the risks of spoilage and produced cleaner wines.

During his career, Peynaud left an indelible mark on hundreds of winemakers, vintners and enologists. "He taught me how to work; he is my mentor," said Pontallier, 47.

Jean-Hubert Delon, of Château Léoville Las Cases, in St.-Julien, remembers doing his first tasting from barrels with Peynaud, who had been hired by Delon's grandfather, Paul. "I was five years old," said Delon, 55. "When I learned he had died, it's as if the page of an entire life has turned. He brought so much to the winemaking in Bordeaux. He was a remarkable, fast taster of young wines; he could foresee what a wine would become 15 to 20 years down the line. He was almost never wrong."

Peynaud was born in 1912. His career as an enologist began in the 1930s, was interrupted during World War II, and ended when he retired in 1990, at the age of 78. He consulted not just in Bordeaux but also in California, Chile, Spain, Peru, Mexico and elsewhere. In Italy, he worked for Antinori on its super Tuscan reds, Solaia and Tignanello; in Chile, for Concha y Toro; and in Bordeaux for classified-growths ranging from Margaux to fifth-growth Lynch-Bages in Pauillac.

Peynaud came from a modest milieu, starting out as a cellar worker with a Bordeaux négociant firm when he was a teenager. He earned a doctorate from what was then called the Institute of Enology at the University of Bordeaux, where he taught enology while also consulting. At one point, he had 150 clients across the Gironde, said Jacques Boissenot, a Bordeaux enologist who ran a consulting business with Peynaud from 1978 to 1990.

"He was my spiritual father," said Boissenot, who heads an eponymous enology laboratory in the Médoc. "He was a great taster, and he was capable of doing the best assemblage to make the best possible wine. He taught me the notion of what a grand vin should be. Today some people make wines that are just caricatures of grands vins; they extract a lot of tannins and a lot of color. This saddened him. Wine is a balancing act, and he sought harmony and elegance."

The professor didn't live in an academic ivory tower; he grasped the need to translate mundane theory into a language that was accessible to vintners, winemakers and an older, less-erudite generation of cellar and vineyard employees. He was friendly and respectful, and his gentle manner helped convince château owners to take risks in the vineyards and invest in better equipment and cleaner cellars.

"Starting in the early 1950s, he brought more discipline to the winemaking process," Boissenot said. While Peynaud focused his work in the cellars, not the vineyards, he admonished the owners to produce ripe fruit. "He said, 'Give me good grapes, and I will make good wines,'" Boissenot recalled.

After the late André Mentzelopoulos bought Château Margaux, he hired Peynaud in 1978 to help turn the first-growth around. Pontallier, who was hired in 1983 at the age of 27, recalled how the septuagenarian enologist took him under his wing. "He had a gift to communicate his knowledge," Pontallier said.

Peynaud also helped wineries understand and control the second fermentation, or malolactic fermentation -- a natural chemical reaction that softens wines by converting the stronger malic acid that is present in new wine into weaker lactic acid.

Lynch-Bages owner Jean-Michel Cazes said that in 1973 the estate's cellars were contaminated by bacterial spoilage. "We had a very old, obsolete winery at the time," said Cazes, adding that the old vats made it impossible to complete the second fermentation. "We couldn't control temperatures and obtain enough cleanliness. And the maître de chai was an old man who didn't know a thing about malolactic fermentation."

Cazes called Peynaud, saying, "Mr. Professor. We're up to our neck in shit. Can you come?" But Cazes wasn't just afraid for his wines; he worried that the old cellar master might take offense at being advised by an academician. Cazes didn't know yet about Peynaud's special talent for demystifying science.

"Peynaud visited the cellar, tasted and talked to the cellar master. He reassured us," Cazes recalled. "He said he had seen it before, saying there was always a solution. When he left, I asked my cellar master what he thought of Peynaud, and he said, 'He is a man who knows what he talks about.' I knew then that Peynaud had won."

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