French winemakers caught adding too much sugar in the wine
January 31, 2009
A group of 40 French winemakers were caught adding too much sugar to their wine during the fermentation.
This process, called chaptalisation is not always permitted, each country has a different legislation. In Italy is forbidden. In France is forbidden as well, however, depending on the quality of the vintage, it can be authorised yearly by the Government. This process, adding sugar to the wine during the fermentation, raises the alcohol level of the wine. In this instance, the French government had authorised the chaptalisation of up to 2% but the winemakers caught cheating had added sugar for a 2.5% increase. The sugar, added during the fermentation, does not make the wine sweet, but increases the alcohol content, it is transformed during the fermentation. The reason of this post is not to shame French winemakers, but it is to introduce and explain a practice that it is sometime used, legally but mainly illegal, to make wine with low quality, unripe grapes.
The alcohol content of the wine depends on the sugar content of the grapes, the higher the sugar content, the more alcoholic the wine will be, and, the sugar content is determined by the ripeness, the riper the grapes the higher the sugar content. Now, excluding bad vintages where grapes don't reach the full ripeness because of weather conditions and therefore their alcohol content can be increased by adding sugar, in all other occasions, adding sugar can make up the lack of the grapes' sugar content. The lack of sugar content could be the consequence of poor vineyard's practices or simply choices, where the best grapes are used for better wines and the less ripe are used for lower quality wines. Increasing the alcohol content can help hiding several imperfections in the eyes of the non expert drinker.
The alcohol content is, often and wrongly, also seen as an indicator of the quality of the wine and whilst for wines produced in hot countries we do expect high alcohol content, in cooler climates we don't, alcohol content is also an indication of the wine's provenance and origin.
Alcohol content is an important element of the wine but not the only one. Another reason for high alcohol wines, in the case of big wine producers or cooperatives that don't grow the grapes, is that wine growers are often paid according to the alcohol content of the grape, and leave the grapes on the vines for as long as possible, thus picking the grapes when the optimal time is passed, grapes that will be producing an unbalanced wine, with plenty of sugar but lacking acidity, necessary to balance it out.
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