ROLAND THEVENIN is a happy man. Thirty years ago he sent his first wines to the United States. These were from the excellent vintage of 1949 and sold for prices so low a wine lover would weep if they were mentioned today. Between then and now, his importer, Monsieur Henri, has brought Thevenin wines here from such memorable vintages as 1953, '59, '61, and '69. In 1960, Thevenin himself visited this country for the first time. Last week he was back, sun-tanned and relaxed, obviously enjoying the prosperity in which Burgundy has basked of late.
He will be home in Burgundy for the harvest, pushed back into October by unfavorable weather this year and expected to be small. But he said other vineyard aareas -- Champagne, Alsace and Beaujolais -- have suffered more in a year that seems destined to become a major disappointment.
Thevenin was introducing several of his 1977 red wines, and a trio of 1979 whites highlighted by an elegant, buttery Puligny. Montrachet. That the wine will be priced in the $15 to $20 price range didn't strike Thevenin as excessive. "Our white wines of 1979 are very good," he said. "It was a year of rich grapes. There was limited production but the wines are full and have high alcohol. In that sense it is similar to 1929, but the wines are not so great as those were."
The '79 reds are less a triumph than the whites, he allowed. The reds of 1977 are on the light side and come between two highly praised years. Thevenin calls it an "honest" vintage, but the wines will be sought out only if the price is considerably below the '76s and '78s.
Thevenin has been to California on several occasions and has played host to Robert Mondavi and other American winemakers who come searching for the secret to making great wines from the pinot noir, the principal wine grape of Burgundy. "They have made a lot of progress in California since I first visited there 10 years ago," he said. "I am very impressed with the sparkling wine of Domaine Chandon. A lot of French would pick it as a true champagne. But the pinot noir wines I have tasted are too strong. They don't capture the nature of the grape. To me, they are more like wines from the Rhone Valley. Of course we are habituated to our own wines, to their taste."
He explains the high price of Burgundy whites and reds in terms of basic economics: too much demand for a relatively small amount of wine from a limited growing area. Like most of his colleagues, Thevenin defends current winemaking practices and discounts overproduction as the cause of the weak and characterless reds that have tainted Burgundy's image here in recent years. "There isn't a major difference between the way we made wine before the war and now," he said. "Vinification is more rapid now, so perhaps the wines live a little less long. But if the grapes come from good land, if the winemaker is serious and if the wine is handled carefully, there is no reason not to have very good wine today."
Now that he has stepped back from day-to-day work in the vineyards, Thevenin has time to travel and to sail in the Mediterranean. While sailing has to rank as an unusual hobby for a winemaker, especially one who lives in landlocked Burgundy, he has another even more unusual. He writes poetry. A book of his poems, describing "the cycle of the vineyard and the wine," has been published in French and in English translation.
Here are his reflections on a topical subject at the moment, the harvest. LA VENDANGE Harvest time comes without warning; The grapes have ripened suddenly; Sickle and sack work without stopping Until the basket is filled up smoothly. Contemplating the reddened bunches, And satisifed with his work, The vinegrower, who is also a wise man, Has no more troubles, or dismisses them! Already one can hear a song in the vat. It's the song of wine that consoles the heart. Soon everyone will be singing the song in unison, And with it, all their cares and sorrows will part . -- Roland Thevenin