July 11, 2011

Chaptalized/Chaptalization *

    The addition of sugar at the start of fermentation to correct for lack of ripeness/sugar in the fruit, to soften tannins and to increase alcohol. Sometimes perceived as a candy-like quality or sugary sweetness in the finish. Acceptable in some regions but not generally talked about.

When in the early 1800s French chemist Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal advised wineries to add sugar to the juice before making wine, he was not suggesting anything new or unique. Winemakers have been adding extra fermentable sugar to grape must for hundreds if not thousands of years. Nor was Chaptal advocating shortcuts to put one over on the public. He was in fact advocating quality, which was sometimes elusive in those years when grapes did not ripen fully. There is a certain sugar content that is required to make decent wine, and Chaptal merely wanted to recommend and standardize the well-established practice.

The main goal of chaptalization is to give the wine better balance by reaching a certain degree of alcohol. Most wine regulators will specify this minimum, any wine that doesn’t meet it would be demoted. So it’s easy to see why winemakers would occasionally want to goose the sugar content a bit. The problem arises when ‘a bit’ becomes ‘a lot’. It’s possible to turn not-very-promising juice into a sellable wine by adding what’s missing, in this case enough sugar to produce sufficient alcohol.

In regions that allow chaptalization, the amounts and circumstances are very specific. For example, European Union regulations allow chaptalization, but not more than is needed to increase the ‘potential alcohol’ by 2 or 3%. This is a good solution as it allows the winemaker to make a minor adjustment that will improve the wine without compromising its overall quality. In fact it could be argued that the quality is higher because of chaptalization.

In regions that do not allow chaptalization, the practice has mostly gone underground. A juice in need of some extra sugar will quite possibly get it, provided no one is watching. Again we can argue that this would improve the wine rather than adulterate it, although there are many advocates who condemn the practice. (There are even a few ‘super palates’ who claim to able to taste chaptalization in a wine.) But in a world where additives are the norm, it seems to me that adding a modest amount of sugar to produce a better product may not be such a bad thing.

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