A brief history of chaptalisation

11/04/2014

2013 was a difficult year inFrancefor the production of wine. A cool summer and excessive rain meant that it was difficult for grapes to achieve maximum ripeness. Even in Bordeaux, many of the top châteaux had to resort to chaptalisation that is the addition of sugar to the must to increase the alcoholic degree.

 This process takes its name from Jean-Antoine Chaptal, Comte de Chanteloup, one of the crowd of polymaths, with whom Napoleon surrounded himself. He was a founder of the chemical industry in France; he established the Chambers of Commerce, created to first school of arts and crafts and served as Interior Minister from 1800 to 1804. Despite all this, his name does not live on for any of these achievements, but rather for solving an economic problem. All this can be blamed on the British.

 Because of their colonies in the West Indies, at the end of the eighteenth century,Francehad become the major producer of cane sugar in the world. However, because of the effectiveness of the British naval blockade ofFrance, Napoleon realised that he would have to find an alternative domestic source of sugar supply. Beet sugar was nothing new; a Prussian scientist, Frederick Achard, had refined the process in 1786, but the cost of producing it made it un-commercial. Napoleon, nevertheless, decided to invest a million francs in research, which Chaptal supported. (An alternative, proposed by Antoine Augustin Parmentier, best remembered for his work with potatoes, was grape sugar.) Sugar-beet won the day and over 100,000 acres was devoted to its plantation.

At the end of the war, the imports of cane sugar began to flow again freely, but it had this new competitor. What could be done to absorb the vast surplus on the market? Chaptal had the answer. He came from the south ofFrance, where a sea of vineyards produced a flood of low-strength, insipid wines. It would be easy to beef these up with the sugar – the wine lake could absorb the sugar mountain.

 It is not as though Chaptal was the first to add sugar to wine. The Cistercian monks at Clos Vougeot, in poor years, used to add loaves of sugar to their vats, for example, but it is Chaptal who is remembered, for better or for worse. When you raise your class of 2013 vintage claret, give thanks to him that he has made it drinkable!

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