This month sees the release of my English translation of Jules Chauvet‘s The Aesthetics of Wine, published by Editions de l’Epure in collaboration with Cher valley vigneron Marie Rocher. It’s the second Jules Chauvet translation I’ve done for Rocher and Epure, after retranslating his Wine In Question for last year’s reissue. But this new bilingual edition of The Aesthetics of Wine marks the first time this work has appeared in English. It’s a collection of Chauvet’s essays, scientific papers, and public speeches concerning the intricacies of wine tasting.
You might, however, be posing yourself the same question a young Italian food journalist friend asked, when I handed him a copy of the book last night: “Who’s Jules Chauvet?”
Chauvet was a Beaujolais wine dealer, winemaker, and wine scientist, who throughout the 1980s mentored the Morgon vigneron Marcel Lapierre and his collaborator Jacques Néauport, prefiguring many of today’s ideas about natural wine. He’s memorably profiled in the Beaujolais chapter of Kermit Lynch‘s classic Adventures on the Wine Route. Nonetheless, if you’ve ever wondered quite what the Chauvet fuss was about, you’re not alone. His wines, released as Chauvet Frères, have become indescribably rare since his death in 1989. Even in France, where he lived and worked his entire life, Chauvet is sufficiently shrouded in mystery to inspire one French blogger to satirically suggest he never existed.
Chauvet’s original books, published posthumously throughout the 1990s and 2000s by the late Paris publisher Jean-Paul Rocher (Marie’s father), are long out of print, and were never easy reads to begin with, even for French speakers. Chauvet’s delicate turns of phrase and his authoritative command of the subject are unmistakable. But the works were marred by repetition among the different volumes, and peculiar editorial decisions, like the one to preserve the “hemming and hawing,” “unfinished sentences,” and “awkward phrasing” in the first edition of Wine in Question.
No doubt certain instances of “awkward phrasing” will be discovered in my own translations of Chauvet. (For starters, Chauvet’s obscure use of the word relief, which the editors insisted on retaining in the English version, to describe the three-dimensional sensations in wine tasting. He uses it in the sense of “relief maps,” not “stress relief.”) I hope anyway to have conveyed the flavor of the French text, which encompasses everything from peremptory dictums, moments of disarming modesty, to dashes of dry humor.
The Aesthetics of Wine is by turns scientific (in descriptions of the effects of adsorption and surface tension on wine tasting), anatomical (in descriptions of the physical mechanism of perceiving sensations of taste and smell), and poetic, as when Chauvet ends one essay with a mild endorsement of wine tasting in a mountain setting. But the most striking thing about Chauvet’s language is the extent to which it fundamentally differs from how most of us think and speak and write about wine today. It bleeds rigor – scientific and aesthetic. One has the sensation of listening in on a very instructive conversation among lifelong professional insiders for whom wine was simply native.
Which is to say The Aesthetics of Wine was perceptibly not written for an editor seeking to make wine as accessible as possible to the widest possible audience. In this the book differs from almost anything published on wine in English nowadays, outside the realm of academia. That Chauvet’s essays can even get published comprises the upside to the dinky scale of the French publishing industry. It’s a dynamic that permits niche wine books to exist. I’m happy to have helped produce this one.
The Aesthetics of Wine is available from Editions de l’Epure, or on Amazon. Or, if you happen to be in Paris, we have copies available at Table Restaurant, where I’ve been working as sommelier since February.