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Emile Peynaud: A Wine Revolutionary

Written by Jennifer Jordan
Filed Under: Wine Personalities

In the world of wine, there are those who are known by many, whose influence over wine is astounding: Robert Parker, for example. There are also those who are lesser known but still adored by the masses, whose wit and charm are welcoming and refreshing: ahem, myself comes to mind. Then there are those who are not very well known, at least not in certain regions, but should be. Emile Peynaud falls into this category.

Emile Peynaud was born in Madiran France in 1912 and grew up to become what the French undoubtedly hold as one of the most important and noble professions: a wine expert. But Emile Peynaud wasn't just a run of the mill wine expert, he was a revolutionary. If the wine revolution involved actual battles, Peynaud would have been on the mightiest horse, leading the charge.

Developing an interest in wine at the age of 14, Peynaud studied under, then with, chemical engineer Jean Ribereau-Gayon. It was during this time that Peynaud realized he had a skill for analyzing wine, a skill that eventually led him to get his doctorate and go on to become a professor of enology at the University of Bordeaux.

Soon after becoming a virtual wine wizard, Peynaud's penchant for wine analysis took a turn: he became less focused on analyzing wine and focused more on analyzing winemaking. Unbeknownst at the time, he would soon do for wine what Sara Lee did for cake: He was about to forever change the way wine was made.

During the years that followed World War II, winemaking processes were not refined nor understood. This led to a "blind leading the blind" concept of winemaking and greatly hurt production. Simply put, the wine wasn't as good as it could have been. Peynaud set out to change this, and he succeeded.

It turns out that winemaking is almost as hard as rocket science and the industry needed someone to come in who understood the science but could explain it and apply it in a manner void of chemistry, logarithms, and all that other stuff that puts most of us to sleep. Peynaud was this guy: he is credited with changing winemaking by taking science and spinning it in a concise, clear, and understandable manner.

Peynaud soon found himself consulting at Bordeaux wineries and developed four rules for the winemakers to follow: the fruit from which wine is made must have an ideal ripeness, the maceration and crushing of the grapes must succeed in taking out the correct amount of tannins, the temperature must be consistent and controlled, and malolactic fermentation should not be feared, but welcomed. It is in the latter point that Peynaud perhaps left his greatest mark.

Before Peynaud, many winemakers believed that malolactic fermentation – the process where malic acid, which is tart tasting, changes to lactic acid, which is softer tasting – was something that should be avoided. However, Peynaud taught them that this type of fermentation would take place in a bottle of wine regardless of any efforts. For this reason, Peynaud told winemakers to encourage malolactic fermentation: encourage it and control it.

Peynaud's findings, like anything new, were not without controversy. When he initially came forward with his discoveries, people said he was committing "Peynaudization" of wine, claiming that he caused wines to become too balanced, less acidic, and too alike. In his defense, Peynaud stated that he helped each winery better something they were already producing, which appears to be exactly what he was doing. Today, we don't call his tactics "Peynaudization;" we call them making quality.

Peynaud not only helped winemakers, but he also helped wine drinkers. Because of his findings, wines became fuller, richer and more flavorful. For this reason, everyone who works in the wine world – winemakers, wine sellers, vineyard owners – as well as everyone who simply enjoys wine – butchers, bakers, and candle stick makers – have Peynaud to thank.

During his career, Emile Peynaud authored over three hundred research papers and served as a consultant to hundreds of wineries located all over the world. In 1990, he was voted Decanter magazine's Man of the Year. His life came to an end on July 18, 2004, leaving us to raise our glasses to both his life long accomplishments and his long life.