Just a Spoonful of Sugar
While Mary Poppins cheerfully proposed that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, European wine producers would contend that a spoonful of sugar helps the alcohol levels go up. In some cases, too far up.
There are times when nature needs a hand – at the hair salon, for example – and in cool climate wine regions where shivering vines struggle to produce fully ripened grapes, bags of sugar are heaved into the fermentation tanks. Fermentation yeasts convert the additional sugar to alcohol, which winemakers argue results in wine with better balance. This age-old technique is known as chaptalization, after Napolean’s Minister of Agriculture, Jean-Antoine Chaptal who advocated the practice as a means to strengthen and preserve wine. That’s certainly an improvement over the previously accepted practice, which was to add lead.
Chaptal did not invent this alcohol boosting technique as ancient records show that Roman winemakers routinely added honey to their fermenting grapes even though they didn’t understand the mechanics of fermentation. Burgundy, Alsace and Champagne have long added sugar to elevate alcohol levels. Bordeaux also routinely chaptalized, but recent viticultural advances have led to greater ripeness in the vineyards so the process is becoming increasingly uncommon. Highly admired Chateau Cheval Blanc chaptalizes only in difficult years, such as 1992, 1997 and 1998, and even then only a portion of the harvest.
In Europe, chaptalization is regulated by climatic zones: the cooler the wine region, the more generous the sugar allowance. Alcohol levels can be raised up to 2.5% in most of France and 3.5% in most of Germany. Chaptalization is not allowed in Spain, Italy and warm southern France.
The timing of chaptalization is in the winemaker’s magic carpetbag of tricks. Some producers believe that adding the sugar in daily doses rather than all at once can extend the fermentation period, which encourages greater extraction of colour and flavour from the grape skins. Add the sugar too early and the fermentation can get too hot. Most winemakers use cane sugar, though beet sugar, corn syrup or concentrated grape juice can also be used. The alcohol derived from added sugars tastes the same as the alcohol from grape sugars, but if over-chaptalized, the wines will taste unbalanced and hot, especially when there is insufficient fruit concentration.
Critics of chaptalization argue that the process encourages winemakers to let vines overproduce high yields of fruit that cannot fully ripen. This is no small matter. At the turn of the last century, winemakers in France’s Languedoc region angrily protested that chaptalization produces ‘’artificial wines’’ leading to an oversupply. The issue became so volatile in 1907 that 900,000 protestors demanded government action, with riots resulting in the death of five protestors in a clash with the army. In response, additive limits were set and sugar taxes increased. Even today, the issue remains contentious with the European Union’s Agriculture Commissioner recently proposing a ban on chaptalization in an effort to reform Europe’s ailing wine sector.
Proponents of chaptalization argue that wines fermented in open vats can lose up to one degree of alcohol to evaporation, a loss needing to be offset with sugar additions. Other winemakers argue it is simply a matter of style and balance. The higher alcohol levels bring out the fruit intensity and increase perceived fullness, which as the world’s most eccentric nanny might suggest, helps the wine go down “in the most delightful way.”