When you add sugar to iced tea (in the South), it’s called life. When you add sugar to a Starbucks venti caramel macchiato, it’s called adult onset diabetes. But when you add sugar to a fermenting wine, it’s called . . . wait for it . . . chaptalization.
Chaptalization is a relatively well-known process among wine geeks, although the name might be misleading. It is the process by which sugar is added to wine must during the fermentation process, above and beyond that amount of sugar that was the natural result of ripening. The intended result of chaptalization is to achieve a wine with higher alcohol content and hopefully, more body. Chaptalization is more common in cold growing regions that struggle to achieve high sugar levels naturally during the growing season. Is it any surprise that the process is named after a man from the chilly vineyards of France, one Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal?
Another process that less people are aware of is called acidification. No, it is not a process invented by a southern-California, surfing chemist named Chuck Acid. It is – no surprise – a process by which acid is added to a wine to boost whatever natural levels of acidity are in the wine. Acidification is basically the opposite of chaptalization in that acid and sugar levels are usually in inverse proportions to each other. Put another way, areas that struggle to develop sugar naturally have no issues with achieving desirable levels of acid, and conversely, the areas that would never need to use chaptalization to supplement natural sugars frequently have low levels of acid and wines that benefit from some acidification.
Which brings me to the topic of this column. How do different countries and states regulate chaptalization and acidification? The answer is: with an ink pen and a clipboard. No, seriously, though, I have taught classes on wine, and the general rule of thumb I would tell the students is that California allows acidification and makes chaptalization illegal. France, on the other hand, allows chaptalization and makes acidification illegal. I would also explain how California vineyards are much warmer than French vineyards, and that California vintners never had problems with low sugar, and similarly, French winemakers never had problems with low levels of acid.
I would get the inevitable question, “But, why would they make something illegal that no one would ever need to do anyway?” Honestly, I don’t know, but that has rarely stopped the government from doing that before.
In any case, I have tried to think of possible reasons why the law would go out of its way to make something illegal, when no one would be doing it anyway, and on a related note, why at the same time make the thing that can be seen as a sort of “crutch” legal?
To answer the second part, I think that’s an easy one. It is pro-business. Taking France as an example, vineyards are simply situated in cold places. Bordeaux, known as one of the warmer places in France, is at roughly the same latitude as the likes of Bangor, Maine, Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Boise, Idaho. Needless to say, Bordeaux growers have trouble ripening to high levels of sugar in the grapes before the cold weather of autumn and winter start to move in. Adding sugar is an easy way to make a wine better and more marketable. Disallowing that would make very many wines in France simply unpalatable and hurt the wine economy. My guess is that there will always be the more ambitious few that choose not to use the “crutch” and instead try to make the wine all-naturally. It should not be the place of the government to decide for everyone that the more ambitious way is the only way. The natural course of things will allow the cream to rise to the top.
Why – you might ask – should winemakers want to struggle to make wine? Why not make it easy? That works for me when it comes to mowing the grass with a mower instead of scissors. Why? Why? Answer: wines are more complicated than your front lawn. Simply put, wines have character much like people. Those that encounter hardship along the way tend to turn out as better people. You know someone like that, and I’m sure you also know the person that has had a rather easy life, and you can detect it in his or her personality every day. To a trained palate, wines often have this same distinction.
For example, I was recently speaking to a few winemakers from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. I asked about their opinions of Washington wines. I, of course, was first given the usual “we love Washington wines down here, the Northwest sticks together, blah, blah.” Luckily, I waited for the “but now tell me what you really think” part of the conversation. The subtext that I picked up was basically that because eastern Washington is high dessert, wineries must rely on irrigation. In Oregon, rainfall is adequate to abundant, depending on the year, and the winemakers there would have it no other way. They have to contend with the elements and live and die by the weather at the end of growing season. For this reason, there is quite a bit more variation in the quality of vintages in Oregon than there is in Washington. Again, these Oregon crazies wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s like that deal where you see a person with a three-legged dog, and you know that although their dog looks deformed, they love it as much as everyone else loves their own dogs.
Ok, maybe I shouldn’t call the wonderful wines of Willamette Valley a three-legged dog, but I think you get my drift. The point is, these winemakers love that they and their wines have to struggle to exist, and it adds an additional level of gratification that they and their fans notice and appreciate.
So, I looked up the actual rules on regulating chaptalization and acidification. Turns out, acidification in California is allowed. From speaking to winemakers in California, I understand that some add the acid, and others don’t. The ones that don’t describe it as a pride issue, like running on the inside part of the cone in a foot race. I cannot determine one way or the other if France allows acidification. Maybe I was misreporting to my classes for all those years. I would love it someone could point me to a citation that states whether French winemakers are allowed to acidify. Oregon and Washington also allow acidification, and I have not spoken to a winemaker from either of these states about that specific topic. I know the vineyards in these states are not quite as hot as many places in California, so maybe these areas don’t need to acidify as much.
Finally, chaptalization is not allowed in California nor in Italy (very hot places). It is allowed in France, but the amount of sugar one can add to the wine is controlled. I cannot find a law one way or the other stating whether chaptalization is allowed in Washington and Oregon. Again, based on the weather here, I wouldn’t imagine the wineries would need to chaptalize much.
My hope for you: That when you enjoy your next glass of wine, whenever that may be, your only thought is, “that is a nicely balanced wine” and not “there’s the wine, and now there’s the acid.” Cheers.
(This posting is not to be construed as legal advice. If any of the information in this posting relates to legal issues that you are facing, you should contact an attorney.)
© All rights reserved Kevin Guidry 2013.