04 June, 2002
The European lake of wine must be drained. It has become the fate of the Danish commissioner of agriculture, Mariann Fischer-Boel, to find the solution. One of the proposals: To stop blending sugar in acid wines and use must of grapes instead, can get direct implications of the way, champagne has been produced for generations.
Champagne is far north, when it comes to grow vines, only 150 kilometers east of Paris. A situation, that traditionnally is on the climatic limit of where big scale growth of vines is worth it at all.
Sugar in Champagne
Throughout history Champagne has just about been able to reach the necessary amount of sunshine to almost ripen the fruits. This is one of the secrets behind the characteristic freshness of champagnes.
Now the natural content of sugar in the grapes has normally not been enough to reach the sought after alcohol percentage of around 12. This is why the permission to chaptalise has often been given here. To chaptalise means to add extra sugar when you just after pressing the grapes discover that they are not sweet enough to reach an alcohol level of 12,5 percent, which is the level of champagnes these days. The added sugar will during the first fermentation transform itself to alcohol.
It is the French Ministry of Agriculture, that almost every year permits to chaptalise in Champagne. At the moment only sugar is allowed, which means that the EU-proposal to add must instead is not currently a possibility here.
Twice again sugar pops up in the proces of making a champagne. First it appears in the company of yeast as the liqueur de tirage to control and start the second fermentation, where the bubbles develop. Last in the company of reserve wines as the liqueur d'expédition, added just before the bottle is ready to be sold. This is the time, where you adjust the final sweetness of the bottle (brut, sec, démi-sec and so on).
The basis of these liqueurs is always wines from Champagne. To add water is - naturally - not allowed. You will actually find producers of wine, that mix water with their wine to keep their percentage of alcohol at an accepted level. I very much doubt it has ever been the case in Champagne. Partly because the control is harsh, not the least from the neighbours. Party because too elevated percentages of alcohol are normally not a problem in cooler climates as in Champagne.
So far the warm weather of the last years has ripened the grapes destined for champagne much more than what was the case before. The tendency the last 10-20 years have been more and more millésime-years. Sweeter grapes means less chaptalisation. So maybe EU in the end will be overtaken by warmer climate anyway.
Read more about amongst others chaptalisation in Champagne in the shared website of the champagne houses.