White Wines of Bordeaux, an article from the December 3, 1876 New York Times

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The New York Times, December 3, 1876, p. 5:

THE VINTAGE OF FRANCE.

THE WHITE WINES OF BORDEAUX.

GATHERING THE GRAPES--THE STUDY OF WINES--
THE SAUTERNE DISTRICT--APPEARANCE OF A VINEYARD--
HOW THE CHATEAU VIGNEAU
DEFEATED THE FAR-FAMED JOHANNISBERG.

From the London Telegraph.

    The last and latest gathering of the grape in fertile France will be found in the specially-favored districts near Bordeaux, where they cultivate with extreme care the luscious fruit from which is pressed the sweet juice literally made into "must" by the sun's action.

    The white wine district of Bordeaux appears to me to have conserved more than any other the ancient custom of manufacture observed by the Greeks and Romans alike.
    In the third consulship of Julius Caesar (B. C. 46) a great feast was given, at which, for the first time, four distinct and choice liquors appeared, called respectively Falernian, Chian, Leabian, and Mammertine.
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    From that date until the present moment the study of wines became a passion all over the world.

    Augustus and his immediate successors changed that love into a science of cultivation; and Pliny, though he owned that the number of wines in the whole world for the highest quality (nobilia) only amounted to eighty, calculated that twice 195 varieties might be computed as belonging to the world.

    The wine processes which obtain in the champagne country, and in the claret district of Médoc, are comparatively modern; but when I pick my way among the vine avenues which surround the Sauterne district and the farms near the celebrated Château Yquem, I seem to recall the primitive plan which turned the juice of the grape into the cloying substance destined to be treasured in the amphora marked by the names and insignia of the Consuls then in office.

    The suggestion does not alone occur to one from the mere taste of the unmanufactured grape, or from the flavor of the thick, sweet juice. The abiding record of the old Greek and Roman system is contained in the quiet farms of this peaceful country.

    As I drive about from vineyard to vineyard I have ocular proof of the existence of the good old plan of winemaking. Here is the vat in which the grapes are trodden by the foot; here is the thick, heavy beam, or prelum, which more forcibly squeezes out the reluctant juice; and down below to this day stands the under wine vat, called lacus in Latin, which is sunk below the level of the press, and catches the sweet liquid before it is stored in the barrel.

    Long after the vintage is over in Champagne, and when the vine-leaves are falling to the ground in the fields of Médoc; when the vats are full of ripening wine at Reims, and the fermentation process is hard at work making or marring the great clarets of the year, the laborers are still out of doors passing from branch to branch among the vines, deliberately picking and systematically choosing, in the locality known as Bordeaux sd "les graves de Sauterne.

    Bordeaux is highly favored, resting, as this happy town does, as a generous barrier between the great red and white wine districts of France. On the one side we have Château Lafitte, Château Margaux, Château la Tour, Léoville, La Rose, Clos d'Estournel, and the estates growing the rarest clarets of this favored land; but go a few miles out of Bordeaux in another direction, and the traveler will find himself in the heart of the vineyards from whence come such rare and delicious elixirs as Château yquem, Château Vigneau, Seduirant, Climens, and so on, and is able to drive about the charming country which produces the famous Barsac.

    The English palate, which has expressed such a decided partiality for dry wines, and finds any liquor richly imbued with saccharine matter both cloying and distasteful, is naturally less enthusiastic about the produce of the Sauterne district than on the subject of the champagnes and clarets of France; but it may be well briefly to hint at the process in the gathering of the grape, and the manufacture of wine, so priceless and so precious as that of Château Yquem and Château Vigneau.

    In England the white wines of Bordeaux, whether they are the petite graves, such as Podensac and Cérons, or the grands vins blancs in the Sauterne district, are considered a luxury with fish and the correct thing to be taken with the preliminary half-dozen oysters; but it is not so in Russia, where these sweet, which might rather be called liqueurs, essences, or nectar, are prized as the richest luxury of the table.

    When it is known how elaborate is the process of selecting the grapes, it will be easily understood how it is that the value of the wine is so high and the possession of it considered so great an extravagance.

    With the white wines the system of collection is far more elaborate and extended. It might almost be described as a deliberate gathering, not bunch by bunch, but grape by grape.

    Toward the end of October, and very often at the beginning of November, the bunches are still left on the vines for the purpose of catching the last instant of sun, and of being reduced by it into dried raisins before they are pressed into wine.

    As I walked through the vineyards round the old and picturesque Château Yquem, and tasted the little inscious white grapes which had been tanned and freckled with the sun, it seemed that here, if anywhere, the fruit was ripe for the harvest; but a closer inspection of the process adopted by the vendangeurs showed that the grapes which looked the best to the eye were, in reality, the very worst for the manufacturer.
    In the champagne land, when a bunch looked withered, dried up, shriveled, and tainted with pourriture, it was cast aside with a sigh; but in the white wine district it would be eagerly gathered for the four classes named respctively the créme de téte, the vin de téte, the centre, and the vin de queue.

    The créme de téte, or best wine of all, is made from these very specially selected and very withered looking grapes--so parched and shriveled by the sun that they look like little black currants, and are in reality snall lumps of saccharine matter--being the residue of the sweetest property of the grape. While the sun lasts and the weather holds good, the special selection goes on, every opportunity being, of course, taken to make as many barrels as possible; but when November advances, and it is absolutely necessary to clear the vineyards, the grapes, good and bad, are housed and sorted for the other classes which I have mentioned.

    Now, I have instituted a comparison between the old Greek and Roman wine manufacture and the present custom in the white wine district of Bordeaux. What does this historian tell lus concerning the Sauternes of the old Roman days?

    "A great variety of wines were manufactured by checking the fermentation or by partially drying the grapes, or by converting completely into rasins. Passum, or raisin wine, was made from grapes dried in the sun until they had lost half their weight; or the bunches, after they were ripe, were allowed to hand for some weeks upon the vine. The stalks and stones were removed, the raisins were steeped in must, or good wine, and then trodden or subjected to the gentle action of the press. The quantity of juice which flowed forth was measured, and water having been added to the pulpy residuum, the produce was employed for an inferiour passum or secundarium."

    In no important measure, therefore, so far as I can see, does the manufacture of the priceless Château Vigneau and the delicate Barsac of today differ from the rude method which turned sweet juice into the passum, or raisin wine, beloved by Romans and seen at the banquets attended by Horace and Mrecenas.

    The process of the production of white wine is as contradictory as the gathering. When they make champagne the pressed juice of various vineyards is mixed in a vat, and the fermentation continues in barrel and bottle; for claret the pressed juice and the mashed grape are flung into a vat, and subsequently drawn off again and again and cleared in the barrel; but when white wine is made it is considered that the major part of the fermentation has taken place by the sun's action in rotting the grape, if I may so express myself, and accordingly no vat is used at all.
    When the sweet juice has been extracted, first by the feet and then in the rough wooden presses, it is at once placed in the barrels, and there it remains until it is fit for drinking.

    The great art of the white wine country is, therefore, the selection for the various classes under judicious inspection; the manufacture is a simple matter, and as often as not takes place in a small shed attached to the wine farm.
    The whole locality teems with small proprietors, many of whom hold small vineyards in the very midst of the most favored districts.

    After visiting the grape-fields about Reims, and wandering about the glorious claret country of Médoc, it seemed to me that the ceremony of the vendages was deprived of much of its merriment by the mere elaboration of the process of gathering. Elsewhere it is necessary to pluck the grapes while the sun shines. The gatherers come from far-distant countries, enter the fields, bring in the harvest, laugh, sing, dance, and when the pressed juice is in the vat they are off and away again to Alsace and Lorraine, leaving the deserted vineyards to the native gleaners and to the mercy of the first frost.
    But there is a never-ending period of grape-gathering in the communes of Sauterne, Bommes, and Barsac, and pleasure is somehow lost in the regularity and prosaic character of the business. In point of beauty, however, the prize of all must be given to the landscape seen in the Sauterne country, where the sloping hills, the intersecting river which did such terrible damage by inundations last year, and the picturesque villages leave nothing to be desired. There are few prettier vineyard views in France than the one seen from the chestnut-covered platform on which stands the old and romantic Château Yquem.

    There has been an old standing feud and rivalry of hundreds of years between the greatest wines of this district and the far-famed Johannisberg of the Rhine, and a great trial of skill took place at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. The jury was composed equally of French and German experts, with a Ruenish President, and two bottles of the choicest Rhine wine were pitted against two bottles of Château Vigneau of 1861.
    A unanimous verdict gave the prize to the Château Vigneau of Bordeaux, and it was afterward ascertained that the Rhine wine was taken from a single barrel made from grapes chosen individually from a whole growth.

    The French have never forgotten this victory, and although the Germans claim for their Johannisberg a bouquet and a perfume that is indescribable, the French maintain that, for wealth and delicacy of flavor, no wine in the world can touch Château Yquem or Château Vigneau.

See also:
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Classic Wine Articles:
White Wines of Bordeaux 1876
Wine Making at Home 1919

Classic Champagne Articles:
Champagne Making in France 1867
Making Champagne in France 1891

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