Some composers adored wine. Ravel chose fine wines to accompany his own dandy lifestyle. Beethoven apparently drank three bottles of Franconian wine each night. Some composers hated wine. Pierre Boulez was famously strictly against alcohol. And others composers loved wine so much it might have actually helped to inspire their work, Richard Wagner being one of them.
And as Debussy modeled himself on Wagner and 2018 is the Centennial of his death, and France is the theme of this issue, and one can hardly think of France without thinking of wine, I think its honorable to pay tribute to the one French wine that Wagner loved so much he ordered 100 bottles to be sent to his home in Bayreuth.
And here is where there is a convenient connection: Wagner drank his Saint Péray, a brilliant sparkling or still white wine, while he composed Parsifal, that Holy Grail of operas, a work that for many inspired Debussy’s own Pelléas et Mélisande.
Debussy wrote of Parsifal as: “one of the most beautiful monuments ever raised to music,’ and that it is “incomparable and bewildering, splendid and strong.” (Lockspeiser: Debussy, His Life and Mind pp.96)
Et Voila! We find our French wine via a German composer who inspired French music. That gives new meaning to the phrase: à la Française, albeit with a Teutonic twist.
It is understandable why the wine of Saint-Péray conquered the artistic, noble and glitterati society of Europe, though after the French Revolution it adopted a religiously neutral name: for a time Saint-Péray was known simply as “Péray white wine.” Lamartine, Daudet, Maupassant, and Baudelaire all mention the wine in their work. Even Pope Pius VII himself sang the wine’s praises.
The still white has a robust and thick, buttery taste of almond and honey and creamy fruits such as a peach and apricot. It and the sparkling variety are made from the Marsenne and Roussanne grapes, which grow in a cooler, more humid climates suitable for making Burgundian style deep whites and sparkling wine. The grapes are pressed. The alcoholic fermentation takes place in vat and oak barrels at cold temperatures. The best producers such as Yves Cuilleron and Alain Voge are known for special limited wines, but the Charpoutier may be the best and most affordable and accessible. Paired with the star chef Anne Sophie Pic, the Charpoutier family has provided an excellent and affordable example of the Marsenne Saint-Péray.
And for the best of the best, try Alain Voge, Le Fleur du Crussol, a top Parker Point winner and well regarded as the finest example of the wine from the region.
Innovation and inspiration were at play when in 1829, Louis-Alexandre Faure, a wine maker in the appellation, inspired by the methods used in Champagne, produced the first “sparkling” Saint-Péray wine. The wine would receive official recognition in the 20th century: on 8th December 1936, Saint-Péray became one of the only 9 wines to receive AOC status. Unfortunately, today the sparkling kind has lost its glamour and is hardly distributed outside of France, though the still wine remains a favorite of collectors and connoisseurs (and composers and conductors..)… Both Debussy and Wagner have lost none of their appeal. Wagner was indeed lucky to have his Holy Grail of wine in his time. You need not wait for inspiration. Your muse à la Française is waiting.