Basic Knowledge to Becoming an Advanced Oenophile

Recently, I was discussing wine with a new acquaintance who said that he and some friends had visited Eleven Madison in New York, and that since he knew all about wine, he acted as their sommelier.  We continued our conversation, and at one point, I asked if he had ever had a pre-phylloxera wine.  “What is that?” he inquired.  I knew then that he did not “know all about wine.”  The fact is, had he known about that one thing, I would have figured that he did know quite a bit about the subject.

The first 29 pages of my book, The Advanced Oenophile, is “Understanding the Wines of France.” With this knowledge, one can converse with some degree of success even with a master of wine.  For example, almost everyone who has studied the history of wine knows about the phylloxera epidemic. Shortly after our Civil War, the vineyards of Europe began slowly dying out.  And this came not too long after another vine disaster there called oidium, a powdery mildew fungus.  Phylloxera was a tiny, almost microscopic insect pest that burrowed underground by the thousands and sucked out the life of the vine’s rootstocks.  After many years, it was finally discovered that phylloxera had been accidentally exported to Europe from the eastern U.S. and was the culprit.  The vines in the eastern U.S, from Texas to Maine, were immune since they grew together with phylloxera here, but the European vines were not.

Hundreds of thousands of east coast U.S. rootstocks were sent to Europe, and their vines were grafted onto our immune rootstocks, thus saving the vineyards of Europe.  The most interesting part of this story to Texans is that T.V. Munson, a Texan, was one of the three famous Americans who did most of the work in rounding up and sending the rootstocks to Europe.  In fact, the three of them were awarded the French Chevalier de Merite Agricole of the Legion of Honor, the first Americans to be so honored since Thomas Jefferson.  It is rumored that Munson sent thousands of rootstocks to Champagne, so now we know why Champagne is so great—it is, of course, those Texas rootstocks!

I have had numerous pre-phylloxera wines, many of which I bought at some of the Hublein auctions in the 1970s — Chicago and New Orleans to name a few – and some from the very exciting Sakowitz wine auctions in Houston.  The greatest I’ve tasted, and one of the greatest wines ever produced, was an 1870 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in magnum from the Glamis Castle cellar in Scotland.  The cellar notes said it was undrinkable for the first 50 years. When consumed in 1981, I wrote that it tasted like a 1945 Lafite on steroids.  Pre-phylloxera wines really were different!

In order to discuss the greatest red wines, one must at least be familiar with the 1855 Classification of Red Bordeaux Wines.  Based on the prices established over the years, the greatest red Bordeaux wines at the time were put into five categories.  Instead of A+++. A++, A+, A and A-, they were called Premier Cru through Cinqueme Cru. The actual meaning in French is First Growth or Estate through Fifth Growth or Estate.  The First Estate wines listed were Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut-Brion.  One of the most successful lobbying acts ever was Chateau Mouton-Rothschild being moved up from a Second Growth to a First Growth in 1973, and to put an exclamation point on that, Baron Philippe de Rothschild had Picasso design the label for the 1973 Mouton.

Another item which is commonly discussed among wine experts, and which is necessary for an advanced oenophile, is the matter of left bank vs. right bank.  The Gironde River comes across and down from the Atlantic through Bordeaux.  Looking at a map, the left bank wines are the famous wines in the 1855 Classification, and are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and secondarily Merlot, followed by small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec. Right bank wines refer to those of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, which are primarily Merlot, usually followed by Cabernet Franc and then Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot and Malbec. If you want to impress someone who asks what your favorite wine is, say “left bank Bordeaux” or “right bank Bordeaux.” I would advise you to look up the 1855 Red Bordeaux Classification if you say “left bank” so you will have an answer if asked which is your favorite from the left bank.  Similarly, if you say right bank, you’d better have several in mind from Saint-Emilion or Pomerol for a follow-up question.

Other information, which is absolutely basic, and which many oenophiles already know, is which grapes are primary in which regions of France.  You now know about Bordeaux, but you should know that the primary grapes of Burgundy are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir;  from Champagne, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier; from the Loire Valley,  Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Melon for white and Cabernet Franc for red; from Alsace, primarily Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer; and from the Rhone Valley, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne for white, and for red, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan.

Bon voyage on your learning journey!