FRENCH WINE: Straining the Good From the Vinegar

International Herald Tribune

November 7, 1979
(Part 1 of 3)

In France and across the rest of Europe, the 1979 wine crop is fermenting in the vats. But for the first time in decades of vintages, France's traditional place at the top of the world wine list is coming into question. There is increasing disquiet about additives, overproduction and pricing. Meanwhile, foreign wines are fast improving in quality. The IHT surveys the wine world in this three-part series.

Finding a decent French wine isn't as easy as it used to be. That attractive bottle of Plonc du Plonc '77 that a shopper spots on a wine list at that cozy little restaurant in the Left Bank or on the shelf in a Passy wine shop, may turn out to be better vinaigre than vin.

Why? Most top-quality wines are priced far out of the range of the average buyer. The shopper who turns to the lesser wines may well find them laced with additives, which can detract from the wine's true taste, or mixed with vastly inferior mass-produced wines to stretch out quantity.

The French and foreigners alike in recent years have struggled with the problem of finding decent French wines at reasonable prices. So far, losers outnumber winners by large margins.

The additive question deserves special attention. Almost all wines contain additives, except the organic wines which account for about 1 percent of the market, and growers and shippers are legally permitted to soup up their wines. But many wine experts believe that perhaps as much as 90 percent of the wine readily available on the retail market may contain twice as much sugar and SO2 as they consider proper.

The question is one of degree. Many observers – although not all – believe that the legal limits on these additives are 100 percent too high. Top-rank growers keep to half the legal limit.

Most wine writers agree that any person who walks into the first Paris wine store that he sees and buys what catches his eye, runs odds of 9-1 that the bottle of wine he buys will be at best a disappointment and at worst something he may be tempted to put in his gas tank.

An exaggeration? About a dozen years ago, this reporter's first visit to a shipper's cellar in Burgundy proved most instructive. It had not been possible to hide the IHT connection and thus avoid the red carpet treatment. The visit ended with a remarkable tasting of various excellent samples of first growths of white and red Burgundies.

Once back in Paris the reporter found a store carrying that firm's wines and bought a couple of bottles that matched, cru for cru, year for year, the ones drunk in the winery's cellars. But aside from the labels, they bore little resemblance to what had been so impressive in Burgundy. It would seem that what that firm poured for VIPs and journalists was not for the public.

Finding good grower's wine is even more difficult because holdings are often small. For instance, the appellation d'origine contrôlée Chambertin consists of 28 hectares. But more than two dozen owners hold various-size pieces of this grand cru. Because a bottle of Chambertin currently sells for about 110 francs, the temptation to stretch the very limited production of this famous wine can be overwhelming.

The heavy use of chemical fertilizers causes the legal maximum yield of 30 hectoliters to the hectare to be overrun. In years of high yield, the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, an advisory board whose recommendations almost always achieve the force of law by subsequent decree of the Ministry of Agriculture, often authorizes a higher maximum and then adds a 20-percent extension.

The law no longer permits classifying excess production as lesser Gevrey-Chambertin or simple Burgundy. But if the wine produced from a yield far above the official maximum passes a government-run tasting commission, it can be legally sold as Chambertin, Clos-de-Vougeot or whatever grand cru name it has the right to.

If Burgundy has been used as an example here, it is only because this region's small size, subdivided into tiny holdings, makes it far more vulnerable to the temptation to stretch production in a period of high prices. The same thing, to a somewhat lesser degree, takes place in Bordeaux and other regions.

If, however, the 110-franc wine does not pass the official tasting, all of it will have to be sold off for about one franc a liter for distillation into industrial alcohol. This almost never happens. The government knows where its votes come from.

But for such thinned-out wines to get past even the benign tasting panels, they need enrichment with beet sugar – cane sugar is rarely used because it costs more. This process is called "chaptalization" and serves to raise a wine's alcohol content – often to an unnecessarily high level.

But a kilogram of sugar costs only about 3 francs and automatically makes another liter of wine when added to the must (fermenting grape juice). Within the legal limit of 3 kilograms of sugar per hectoliter of must, that adds up to three more liters or four more bottles of wine per hectoliter. And the Ministry of Agriculture has just raised this generous limit by 50 percent to 4.5 kilograms of sugar per hectoliter of must, applicable as of next year's harvest.

For the 110-franc Chambertin, with the current limit on sugaring and at 30 hectoliters to the hectare, nearly 13,000 francs worth of extra wine can be produced per hectare of vines, even after the price of the sugar is subtracted.

Thus, whether the wine needs it or not, sugar is almost always added. The result is heavy, hard-to-get-down wines that ought to be pure pleasure and leave the taster fresh and clear-headed the next day. Instead they leave a drinker rundown and headachy.

Such wines tend to be unbalanced chemically and may have problems in the bottle. A solid dose of SO2 clarifies the wine, kills any stray germs and avoids any likelihood of refermentation or oxidation. It also can give a sharp, burning sensation in the nose, at the back of the throat as the wine goes down and in the pit of the stomach.

The next day, a headache that feels like an iron bar weighing across the forehead (the French call it la barre au front) is the symptom of too much SO2 ingested with wine. And it's all perfectly legal, up to 175 milligrams per liter of dry red wine and 250 for dry white. Sweet liqueur-type wines, such as Sauternes, may contain up to 400 milligrams per liter.

It has not been proven that SO2 is harmful within these limits, which are the same for all European Economic Community countries. But the body obviously does not like it, otherwise there would be no headache. The rule of thumb with SO2 would seem to be: Less is better.

Nor is SO2 the only chemical additive permitted in wine. Among others, tartaric acid may be added to wines lacking sufficient acidity, while excessively acidic wines may receive a dose of calcium carbonate to deacidify them.

Various physical treatments also may be used. Reducing the temperature of wine down to about minus 5 degrees Celsius causes matter to settle out. Flash pasteurizing kills bacteria as effectively as SO2. Heavy filtering through asbestos plates prevents sediment from later appearing in the bottle.

But not one of these practices, with the possible exception of very light chaptalizing, does much for the aroma or taste of wine. If anything they tend to neutralize it, or, in the case of excessive SO2 , they may make it repellent.

If the goal is to make a uniform, pretty-colored product that is clear in the bottle and ready for sale quickly, all these methods work. But if the point is to make wine with a fine taste and character, they should only be used with the greatest of discretion.

After all, the official French definition of wine is a drink that "comes exclusively from the fermentation of fresh grapes or the juice of fresh grapes." Yet authorizing the use of sugar and the chemicals mentioned above renders the definition meaningless.

French wine laws are very strict but the limits are sometimes too broad and enforcement is certainly lax. Similar rules govern wine making in other countries, but France is especially open to criticism because it has so long been the model for every other wine-producing country.

At its best, French wine is stunning in its character, taste and elegance. And there are many honest shippers and growers who produce outstanding wines. But how does one find these wines amid all the bad, mass-produced wines that most people are exposed to?

A good way is to follow the results of various annual wine judgings such as those of the Paris Salon International de l'Agriculture in March (called Palmares des Produits, available for the asking at Concours General Agricole, 19 Boulevard Henri-IV, Paris 4th) or of the Mâcon National Fair in May (Palmares du Concours des Grands Vins de France de la Foire Nationale de Mâcon, 2 Rue Gambetta, Mâcon 71000).

Another good source is the monthly Gault-Millau food, wine and travel guide. Particularly in the September and October issues this French-language magazine offers extensive lists of generally reliable producers, with addresses and prices of wine – when available – for direct ordering. And it tells where to find their products among the few really good Paris wine stores.

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Part 2: France's rivals in the quality wine market.