“Chaptalization” and “watering back” come close to words that cannot speak their name: at the very least, they are extremely sensitive subjects that you bring up at your peril with producers in France on the one hand, and in California on the other. Each is a miracle of transmogrification. Chaptalization consists of turning sugar into wine; well, technically the sugar is converted into alcohol, but the bulk of the sugar increases the bulk of the wine – in fact you can calculate that it’s a lot cheaper to increase the volume of your wine by chaptalization than by growing more grapes. Watering back is the practice of diluting the must before fermentation; this is pretty much a direct conversion of water into wine. Attitudes to the processes are mirror images: chaptalization is illegal in California, and watering back is regarded as a fraud in Europe. In the course of thinking about what determines the typicity (or typicities) of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux and Napa, I have been trying to get some information about the extent of the two processes. As I am off to Bordeaux for my first research visit, I’ve been concentrating on chaptalization for now, but I’ll return to watering back later when I go to Napa.
Chaptalization is legal in the northern parts of Europe, and consists of adding sugar, up to a limit that is usually below 2%, to the must, either before or during fermentation. Introduced as the result of Chaptal’s advocacy in the early nineteenth century, it compensates for lack of sugar when the grapes don’t reach sufficient ripeness to have an adequate level of alcohol. Some producers believe that best results are obtained by adding sugar before fermentation, effectively creating the level that would have been reached if the grapes had been riper. Others believe that gradually timed additions are better, or a small addition at the very end, which stresses the yeast – DRC are great believers in this last option, and no one could quarrel with the quality of their wines!
It seems to me that it’s a reasonable question of public interest as to how much chaptalization is used, but whenever I’ve attempted to find out, I’ve been given a royal runaround. Producers who use chaptalization in France have to make a declaration to the tax authorities in order to pay tax on their usage. When I wrote my first book on Bordeaux, I asked the Customs authorities in Bordeaux for information, but they said the local office of INAO would have it. So I enquired in Bordeaux, but was told INAO in Paris would have it. Of course, INAO in Paris then told me that the Customs in Bordeaux would have it!
Spurred by the fact that the famous ampelographer Pierre Galet quotes the Service de Douanes as his source for figures on the use of sugar in Bordeaux between 1996 and 2000, I made a renewed effort last month. “Producers who wish to enrich their wines by sucrage, by adding concentrated must, or by concentration by cold treatment (congélation) must deposit a declaration of enrichment at the local office of the Customs,” Patrick Leduc of the Douanes informed me. “But the service cannot divulge any statistics on the use of sugar,” he added. So I asked him how M. Galet had obtained the figures that feature in his book (Cépages et vignobles de France : Tome 3, Les vignobles de France), which show that Bordeaux was the second highest user of sugar after Champagne (which of course uses it for dosage). Why cannot I have similar information for the years from 2001-2010, I asked. “Because our service does not possess the requested information,” M. Leduc replied. When I pointed out that there’s a small inconsistency here, that first it’s claimed Customs can’t divulge the information, then when it’s demonstrated they have in fact previously divulged the number, they claim they don’t have the information, I received no reply. (You have to wonder what’s the point of paying taxes if the authorities don’t even know they’ve got the money.)
I do not think this obsession for secrecy serves the interests of the producers well. When I’ve asked in Bordeaux about the use of chaptalization, the usual answer is that it’s been much rarer since 1997. That’s pretty much what you would expect from the run of warmer vintages. The fact alone that alcohol levels are now pushing 14% in Bordeaux, whereas previously it was a struggle to get to 12.5%, suggests that chaptalization often may be unnecessary. What I expected the figures to do was to confirm the anecdotal impression that chaptalization is less frequent (although I don’t expect it to have disappeared completely, and it might well have needed to come back for the 2011 vintage). But before I conclude that Bordeaux is generally free of added sugar, I’d like to see some confirmation in the form of real numbers. Producers are fairly transparent about which varieties go into the assemblage each year, what proportion of production is diverted to a second wine, how much new oak they use – so if chaptalization is a respectable process, why should there be such secrecy about it, especially if it’s in decline?
I still have not succeeded in obtaining any information about the extent of chaptalization in Bordeaux since 2000, but the sugar manufacturers are quite proud of the varied usages of sugar in France. Their annual report gives the tonnage used for the 15 most important sectors. Chaptalization just creeps into the bottom of this list (just below Glaces, sorbets et crèmes glacées). Assuming that wine is treated at 1.75 kg/hl (just below the limit), it’s possible to calculate what volume of wine has been chaptalized, and what proportion this is of the total harvest in France. It comes to between a quarter and a third in cool years (such as 2007) but drops to around 17% in warmer years (such as 2005). The rock bottom level was 13% in the record hot year of 2003. (The percentages would be higher if the average level of chaptalization was lower.)
We are pitifully under informed about wine compared to the information that is mandatory for foods. I’m not advocating that the label should have a detailed list of every ingredient that was used to treat a wine, but I do wonder whether it’s naive simply to assume that wine is a natural product made from grapes, and to allow labels to state features such as the percentage of each variety but not other ingredients. Of course, it would be a lot less glamorous to say “this wine was made from 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, and 2% sugar.”