June 9, 2018
Wine and Connoisseurs: Savoir-boire and savoir-parler go together
THE WINE DRINKERS (LES BUVEURS DE VIN)
Jacques Autreau (1657-1745)
ca. 1729-1732 - Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Wine Drinkers, previously known as The Poet Piron at Table with Friends, presents three cheerful companions: from left to right, Alexis Piron, poet; and the songwriters and playwrights Charles Collé and Pierre Gallet. They dine – nowadays, we would call it lunch – in the back room of the Caveau, a cabaret hall owned by Nicolas-Alexis Landelle, on the corner of Rue de Bussi and Rue Dauphine, in the Saint-Germain area of Paris.* Although certain commentators have suggested that Piron and his friends are drinking champagne, this is actually fairly unlikely. Alexis Piron was born in Dijon in 1689 and only left the Burgundy region at the age of 30 (he was to be be voted into the Académie de Dijon in 1762). Parisian wine cellars were fashionable, enjoying a better reputation than those of Burgundy; and in any case, Piron would probably have been unable to afford champagne, which was four times as expensive as Burgundy wine.
Let our imaginations run wild, and say that the happy diners are drinking a good white Burgundy wine. Why not a Meursault? Does the wine have the balance of subtlety and strength for which this cru is famous? The “immediate, unctuous stickiness” (Jacky Rigaux), unique to the best whites of the Côte de Beaune? As connoisseurs, the friends are searching for the words to describe its colour, aroma, taste. “The mouth, which feels and tastes, also delights in language, rejoicing at the confluence (…) of wine and words” (Martine Chatelain-Courtois).
Seventy years later, Talleyrand, who was the owner of Château Haut-Brion for three short years, explained to one of his hosts the ‘proper’ way to drink wine. Before bringing the glass to one’s lips, one must admire it and savour the smell. “And now, do we drink it?” asked his friend. “No monsieur, not yet! Now we put it back on the table and we talk about it.” In other words, savoir-boire and savoir-parler come as a pair!
* Other regulars at The Caveau included: Crébillon the Elder, playwright; Crébillon the Younger, author of libertine novels and stories; Charles-François Panard, poet; and several others. They invent and sing lively – perhaps bawdy – songs as the meal goes on. It lasts ten hours and all leave the table drunk. This meal marks the foundation of the ‘Dîners du Caveau’ dining club, a festive association which would serve as a model for other societies. The group’s founding members would later invite other friends to join them, such as Jean-François Regnard, writer of comedies; painter François Boucher; musician Jean-Philippe Rameau; and the philosopher Helvetius. No women were allowed, even as guests. Pooling their money, the twenty or so members would meet twice a month at the Caveau for dinners marked by feasting and singing.
Gawen Hamilton 1730-1735 - Yale Univers., New Haven, CT, United States / 7
Philipe Mercier, 1744-47 - Yale Univ. Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, United States
Jan Ekels le Jeune, probabl. 1791 - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
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Fortunately, wine can be enjoyed for its finer qualities: it is not just a means of intoxication. If the notion of ‘good taste’ is as old as time itself, it was through a process of self-reinvention that connoisseurship came to the fore in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From the 19th century, this subject (albeit still relevant) drew less attention from painters.
4/ The title of this painting explains a great deal. The scene takes place in Haarlem, a city made rich through its textile industry. It is the Dutch ‘Golden age’, when business was thriving. A favourable climate for the development of wine connoisseurship.
5/ We are still in Holland. This painting shows Dordrecht, a port city from the 15th century onwards. It was home to a lively wine trade and, even today, a large warehouse called ‘Bordeaux’ stands on the old wine route! Although ‘tastings’ were a predominantly male affair, Jan Olis’s Elegant Women Smoking and Drinking (ca. 1640, Private collection) assert their position by smoking and drinking happily, tasting and appreciating the wine they are offered. The Dutch painter is painting what he knows: he had just married Catharina van der Beken, the widow and successor of a wine merchant. Today, wine connoisseurs advise against mixing tobacco and wine!
7/ In the eighteenth century, the rise of a new merchant class in England made savoir-boire a real measure of social success. The Clarke Brothers Drinking Wine with Other Gentlemen shows us that ‘good taste’ was no longer the preserve of the aristocracy, but also existed among London’s lower gentry and upper-middle classes. This customer base was targeted by the great Bordeaux producers, such as the Ségur (Chateau Lafite and Chateau Latour) and Pontac families (see above). They were in charge of sizeable production units, bringing together the best terroirs.
10/ In Catholic high society, the Court was still very relevant. Jean-François de Troy’s The Oyster Lunch was commissioned by Louis XV for the dining room of the Private Apartments of the Chateau of Versailles. Back from the hunt, the King’s favourite noblemen are shown eating oysters, a fashionable dish imported from England during the 18th century. They are drinking sparkling Champagne wine, known at the time as sautebouchon. Servants and guests have their eyes fixed on the popping cork, visible in the middle of the right-hand column. Given its limited production and its high price, champagne was only available in the Royal Court and among well-to-do circles in Paris and London. Champagne was considered “the most suitable wine for refined people…sparkling white wine is adapted for the nobility, the only people to enjoy their senses in their totality.” This painting appears to be the first to show champagne. “It was fashionable at Court…It benefited from a poetic image, with its bubbles, foam and lightness permitting many new metaphors on a subject that centuries of Bacchic poetry had worn out. It was but a short step from sparkling wine to sparkling society…” For Benoît Musset, “[it] presents a different, much more restrained environment, free of excess. The painting is divided between several groups engaged in tasting the precious wine and exchanging their impressions of its colour and taste. The artist focuses on the characters’ gestures, their special way of holding the glass by its base, of pouring the wine, of raising the glass to their lips…” They are drunk on language.