WINE: Beaujolais – One Lump or Two?

International Herald Tribune

November 15, 1972

This year's new Beaujolais will be available tomorrow and most of it is so acid that you may be tempted to put sugar in it. Don't bother; there is sugar in it already.

Chaptalisation, named after Chaptal who invented the process in 1800, is necessary in years such as this when cold weather or rain prevents the grapes from ripening and producing sufficient sugar.

This process can easily lead to hard-to-prove abuses, and nowhere are these abuses more loudly decried than in the Beaujolais area. Wine lovers of every stripe have taken up the cry, often in ignorance of the purpose of enrichment, but justifiably indignant at the often artificially high alcoholic content in what is thought of as a fresh, light wine.

A certain amount of alcohol is needed in any good wine to give it body and smoothness, allow it to travel safely and keep. And even when the must comes out at the 9 percent legal minimum alcoholic content for simple Beaujolais, the growers usually feel it is necessary to raise that figure by 1 or 2 percent, which is quite reasonable.

Curiously enough, some wines come out at 14 percent alcohol and above, while retaining the excessive acidity of wine made from unripe grapes. These wines may not appear on the market until after Dec. 15, for 13 percent alcohol is the legal limit for new Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages.

Last week 28 percent of the wines presented for release were refused on the basis of chemical analysis for either excessive alcohol or acidity, or after official tasting commissions made up of three growers and shippers decided that the wines did not have the character of new Beaujolais.

Strict limits on how much sugar may be used either by volume of crop or acreage of vineyard, and stiff penalties, do not seem to suffice. It is very hard, indeed, to keep an eye on several thousand producers at once during the brief harvest period.

Furthermore, once the sugar, beet or cane, has been in the must for a few hours, the fermentation breaks it down into sugars, chemically indistinguishable from natural fruit sugars.

Thus it is impossible to tell objectively if a wine has been enriched heavily – but you can taste it and feel it. It leaves a hot sensation on the back of the tongue and is very heady. After a couple of glasses you feel as if you had drunk a bottle.

Another temptation for the growers is that 100 kilograms of sugar dissolved in the must increases its volume by 60 liters. Many growers order their sugar in advance so as not to be caught short if the crop is poor. Then, it is said, they use it even if the crop is ripe so they won't be caught with a stock of illegal sugar in their cellars. Such are some of the dimensions of the problem.

To justify high alcoholic content, legal or otherwise, many producers and shippers come up with what would seem to be an irrefutable argument: The public likes it that way. This argument, however, is self-serving and who formed this taste for heady Beaujolais if not the producers and shippers?

Quantity is high this year, about 850,000 hectoliters against 800,000 in 1971. Despite large quantity and poor quality, prices are up by 30 percent over the excellent 1971s. This, of course, does nothing to discourage overproducing which in turn leads to thinner wines that require more enrichment.

Things are better among the fine crus of Beaujolais where yield per acre is lower, exposure to the sun is better and the grapes were picked later. In the company of Pierre Ferraud, a small shipper at Belleville, who ages and bottles growers' wines separately rather than under one label, I was able to taste some delicious 1972 Brouillys and Fleuries.

Fortunately, the picture is encouraging for the Burgundies, too, except Chablis. The grapes ripened very well and were very healthy in the Côte d'Or, according to grower Gérard Potel, who has first-growth vineyards in Volnay, Pommard and Santenay.

Quantity is up, especially among red wines. Mr. Potel got only 16 hectoliters of wine a hectare in 1971 and this year he got 45. Quality is excellent but the wines are "hard" and will take longer than usual to "open up," in other words to reach their full richness. On the other hand, they should keep very well.

So far, prices in the Côte d'Or have remained at last year's level, although Sunday's auction at the Hospices de Beaune may raise them somewhat.

Prices are very high at Pouilly-Fuissé, however, no doubt because this wine of limited quantity is very popular in the United States. But they are not justified by the quality of the wine except for a few outstanding vineyards such as Château Fuissé.