Sunday, December 13, 2015

Thomas Jefferson's Big Wine Adventure

Thomas Jefferson was the ideal of a Renaissance Man. He was a statesman, political philosopher, architect, horticulturist, writer, musician, and pioneer of archeology, geology, and paleontology. He spoke seven different languages. On top of all of this, Jefferson was perhaps the greatest wine connoisseur of the 18th Century. Throughout his eventful life, he was always happiest enjoying a glass of fine wine over a lovely dinner in his beloved home of Monticello. In an age when most Americans drank nothing but beer or gin, Jefferson believed that promoting a love of wine among the people would help cultivate a more refined and elegant society in America.

Fittingly, in 1784 the Continental Congress sent Jefferson to Paris, where he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as the American Minister to France. During his years in Paris, he drank in the intoxicating atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary France, relishing its music, art, literature, architecture, and the polite and sophisticated conversation of the Parisian salons. He also delved deeply into the culinary arts of the French table and, of course, its wine.

In 1787, taking a much-needed break from his diplomatic duties, Jefferson set out on a three-month tour of France and northern Italy that would take him through the most famous wine regions of Europe. Being Jefferson, he travelled incognito and took detailed and extensive notes on everything he observed, from the salaries being earned by the winemakers to the type of bread being eaten by the peasants who worked in the vineyards. Because of Jefferson's meticulous documentation, historians have a nearly perfect picture of what is arguably the most famous wine tour in history.

Jefferson set out in late February, heading southeast from Paris in his own private coach. He passed through Chablis without stopping, for its wines were not as well known in his time as they are in ours. He soon arrived in the city of Dijon, the main city of the Burgundy wine region and even then famous for its mustard. For several days in early March, Jefferson moved south from Dijon to the city of Beanue, passing through the whole of the Burgundy region and exploring some of the greatest vineyards in the world.

In his short time in Burgundy, Jefferson developed a love for its wines that would last until his death. In particular, he prized the white wines produced at Montrachet and Meursault, which, like virtually all Burgundy whites, were made from Chardonnay grapes. Both of these are still available and highly prized today. Montrachet is designated a Grand Cru vineyard and its white wines are among the most expensive in the world. Among the Burgundy reds, Jefferson greatly enjoyed Chambertin, still among the most prized red wines in the world. He also delighted in the red wines of Vougeot and Volnay. Because of its affordability, Volnay became one of Jefferson's favorite red table wines, which he often served in later years both at Monticello and the White House.

In mid-March, Jefferson left Burgundy and proceeded south to the Rhone Valley, which he considered exquisitely beautiful. During his time in this part of France, ever the Renaissance Man, Jefferson seemed more interested in Roman archeology than he was in wine, but he still visited many vineyards and sampled several wines. Curiously, he did not think highly of red Rhone wines, although they are justly prized today (by none so much as the author of this blog post!). Jefferson reserved in praise of Rhone wines for their whites, which delighted him. In fact, he considered the dry white wine produced by the celebrated Hermitage vineyard to be "the first wine in the world without exception".

Jefferson arrived in Marsailles at the end of March, where he remained for a week as he explored the possibilities for American commerce in the great Mediterranean port. He then journeyed over the Alps into northern Italy. His primary goal was to investigate methods of rice production which might he useful to American farmers; he even illegally smuggled samples of rice seed out of the region and sent them to friends in South Carolina. Still, he took the time to sample some of the great wines of northern Italy. He described wine made from Nebbiolo grapes as "sweet", "astringent", and "brisk". These are traits that few wine wasters associated with Nebbiolo wines today, because the methods of making the wine have changed considerably. Still, Jefferson greatly enjoyed the Nebbiolo wines he sampled in Italy.

Returning to Marseilles in early May, Jefferson then spent several leisurely and relaxing days floating up the Canal du Midi to the city of Toulouse, then down the Garrone River to the famed vineyards of Bordeaux. His time in Bordeaux was perhaps the most extraordinary of his entire journey. Among the red wines of Bordeaux, Jefferson ranked Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite, and Chateau Latour as the very best. Interestingly, the official 1855 classification of Bordeaux vineyards reached an identical conclusion, listing these four vineyards as the only First Growths. Another Bordeaux red that Jefferson particularly enjoyed was what he called "Rozan", which is today known as the Chateau Rausan-Segla.

Jefferson considered the wine produced at Chateau Mouton to be of the "third class" and ranked it with "common wines". This opinion stands in stark contrast to the opinion of posterity, which elevated Chateau Mouton to the level of a First Growth in 1973 (the only change from the original rankings that has ever been made). One wonders what the famously touchy Baron Phillipe de Rothschild, the owner of Chateau Mouton, would have had to say to Jefferson about his low consideration for Mouton.

Of the Bordeaux whites, Jefferson was very fond of Chateau Yquem, today the most expensive and famous of the Bordeaux white wines. Like most Bordeaux whites, it was made primarily from the Semillon grape, which is not widely produced or sold in the United States today. Interestingly, Jefferson became enamored with Chateau Yquem many decades before the accidental discovery that allowing them to be infected with botrytis cinerea, the parasite affectionately known as the "noble rot", would make them even better.

Jefferson left Bordeaux at the end of May, without visiting St. Emilion or Pomerol, today famed for their Merlot wines. Exactly why he ignored these wine regions is something of a mystery and is to be much lamented. He sailed north to the port city of Lorient and then down the Loire River back to Paris. He sampled many of the Loire wines as he went, asserting that they were good but inferior to the best wines of Bordeaux. On June 10, Jefferson finally returned to Paris and his great trip came to an end.

In a letter written shortly after his return, Jefferson said that he had "never passed three months and a half more delightfully." Indeed, it is doubtful if anyone before Jefferson had ever packed so many wine experiences into such an extensive trip in such a short time. Between the end of February and the beginning of June, the future president had explored the wine regions of Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, northern Italy, Bordeaux, and the Loire Valley, sampling wine at virtually every stop. What he learned on this amazing journey elevated him from being a mere lover of wine into one of the greatest wine connoisseurs in the history of the world.

(Two wonderful books to which readers can turn for more detailed about this amazing journey, and Jefferson's love of wine in general, are Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson by James Gabler and Thomas Jefferson on Wine by John Hailman.)

Jefferson's trip was more than a personal odyssey. Throughout his travels, Jefferson established relationships with wine merchants and vintners who became lifelong friends. Chief among these was Etienne Parent, a wine merchant in the town of Beaune who would later provide Jefferson with a constant flow of Burgundy wines to be served at the tables of Monticello and the White House. He also established personal contacts with many of the great wine merchants of Bordeaux. The informal network that Jefferson formed during his journey formed the foundation of the export trade of French wines to the United States, which has continued ever since.

In a very real sense, then, the great expedition Thomas Jefferson undertook to explore the vineyards and wineries of France and northern Italy in 1787 marked the birth of the American love affair with fine wine.

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