Apparently the majority of the accused producers have pleaded guilty to excessive chaptalisation in the difficult 2004 vintage hoping that the authorities would allow the musts to be enriched by 2.5%. The normal limit is 2%. This means that the grapes would have been picked at around 9.5%-10% potential alcohol – perhaps even less. A Beaujolais version of red Vinho Verde!
Although the case has nothing to do with the Loire, apart from parts of the Loire growing Gamay, it does raise the whole question of enrichment or chaptalisation. As Hervé points out in his analysis it is the use of chaptalisation that permits overcropping. An increasing number of Loire producers are proud that they do not or very rarely add sugar to the must. Global warming will have played a part but also better viticultural practices have made a big difference.
Back in the wonderful vintage of 1989, Loire producers amazingly used the same amount of sugar as in a normal year. They were seemingly wedded to the practice. Indeed a leading Saumur-Champigny producer told me in December 1989 that he had chaptalised his must by 0.5% to give ‘roundness’. My guess is that this producer wouldn’t do this today.
If this does indeed turn out to be fraudulent, it will be all too easy to point fingers at the producers for being lazy and greedy. But look at the bigger picture. Cheap wine selling in supermarkets in France and elsewhere comes with an inevitable price tag if producers receive either only enough to cover the cost of production or, quite possibly, not enough to cover the costs unless yields are pushed up. In these circumstances you can’t take the risk to wait until your grapes are ripe and, furthermore, there may be less juice in your grapes if you do wait.
Equally it would be remarkable if the Beaujolais is the only wine region where sugar is bought and used illegally to boost the lack of natural grape sugar. Indeed there are often rumours of sugar disappearing off supermarket shelves during the vendange. Presumably this is due to having to drink many more cups of strong black coffee during the harvest than usual, the annual jam-making season and most laudably to support the bettravistes – the sugar beet producers of northern France.
See also: La Confédération Paysanne taking a stand against fraudulent practices.
Report from AFP
28.1.2008: See also Hervé's update