Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Chaptalization's Not In It

Since I know everyone's been on tenterhooks, trying to figure out just what exactly it was that I drank last Friday, I figured I'd cut right to the chase and open with a little photographic evidence.

Just in case it's still not entirely clear, it was the 2000 Arbois Pupillin Savagnin, from Maison Pierre Overnoy and its current winemaker, Emmanuel ("Manu") Houillon. Intensely oxidative and nutty on the nose, it could easily have passed for Sherry, at least until it passed the lips, when the razor's edge acidity and piercing minerality, ummistakable, of Savagnin took over. Deliverer of as much pain as pleasure, it's not a wine I'd conceive of drinking every day but is unquestionably something that will leave an indelible impression on the sensory memory of anyone who has the chance to try it.

Friday was one of those tough days. Writing about it five days later, I can't really put my finger on what made it so tough. It was just one of those days when, at some point in the action, I decided something special needed to be opened that night. Something that might take me out of the negative space, not through alcohol delivery but rather through the act of thoughtful wine drinking.

Step back. Experience. Contemplate. Enjoy.

If you're wondering what the title of today's post has to do with this, let's all take a step back.... The inspiration to which I alluded in Friday's "Name That Wine" post had been delivered by something I'd read that day: Cory Cartwright's post on his visit with Manu Houillon at Maison Overnoy. Its partner post from Guilhaume Gerard (I'd forgotten how funny it is), taken from an earlier trip to see Houillon, didn't hurt either. What made me pick this wine was the sense of respect and reverence that came through in Cory's post, along with the sense of joy (however snidely presented) in Guilhaume's, and, finally, my own realization that I don't get to drink these wines nearly as often as I'd like.

What stuck with me, though, even longer than the finish of that Pupillin, was Cory's revelation that Houillon sometimes chaptalizes his wines. That's just how it came across to me: as a revelation both in terms of Manu sharing the information in the first place and of the impact that information had on my friend Cory.

Perhaps another step back is in order.... For those of you who aren't familiar with the wines of Overnoy/Houillon, they hail from Eastern France, from a sub-Alpine subdistrict of the Arbois known as Pupillin. In the last few years, the wines have become increasingly hard to come by, as they're coveted heavily here in the States, back in France, and most recently, word has it, in Japan as well. The wines are always compelling, almost always delicious, and very often cited, by very many people, as bastions on the short list of flagships within the natural wine movement.

This picture of Manu Houillon was stolen brazenly and without permission
The Wine Digger.

Chaptalization, quite simply, is the practice of adding sugar to grape must before or during fermentation in order to raise the alcohol level in the finished wine (not to create a sweet wine). It's a process that's been used for centuries, starting long before it was fully scientifically understood, codified and promoted by French chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal.

Chaptalization has long been a useful tool in cool climate areas, in regions where it's often difficult to achieve ideal ripeness levels on the vine. In Bordeaux, before the advent of global warming, reverse osmosis, must concentrators and ultra-late picking, chaptalization was necessary in most vintages just to achieve the once standard 12.5% alcohol level. It's still used commonly in Burgundy, in the Beaujolais, for non-Pradikat wines in Germany.... And I've little doubt that it's also used in plenty of warmer climes too, in places where it's supposedly forbidden, as a little (or a lot of) sugar is quite useful in making up for the dilute nature of the extremely high crop levels necessary for the production of the global supply of bulk wine. Yes, it can be a useful tool, but it can also be a crutch.

What's struck me for quite some time now is the lack of reference made to chaptalization when discussing the ins and outs of natural wine. The big buzz words are yeast, sulfur, enzymes. There's plenty of discussion of engineering tricks in the winery, and of course about farming practices, herbicides, pesticides, etc. But hardly anyone ever mentions chaptalization. Alice doesn't, at least not in her core definition of natural wine. Cory expressed shock when Manu admitted to its use. I've never found the inspiration to write about it until now....

My point is not to point fingers at anyone as being right or wrong but rather to ask questions, to hope everyone will step back and think about it.

Think about Cory's interpretation of Houillon's words:
"He doesn’t like doing it [chaptalizing], but he freely admits to it when the year is thin and the wine isn’t going to amount to much.... He understands chaptalising wines (a common, accepted and traditional practice in many appellations) and feels he can get better wines in certain vintages by the addition of sugar."
And ask yourself the following question. Is it most important to make wines in a totally unadulterated manner, or to make the best wine you can from what nature has given you?

There are so many ways to interpret the above question that its answers are near endless.

When it comes to chaptalization, I appreciate the answer posited by Guilhaume, who does address it in laying out his own natural wine dogma, saying, "Sugar is definitely the least important [no-no] as it's not harmful. Still, if we are talking about natural wines i think chaptalisation should be banned."

For me, though, there's at least a little shade of gray. No chaptalization ever? That's natural to the extreme. (I can't help but think back to Alice's distinction between softcore and hardcore natural in the context of additive SO2 use.) Chaptalization in small amounts, only when truly necessary to find balance in an unfriendly vintage, never as a crutch to make up for poor farming, never in extreme quantities.... I'm okay with that, as long as it doesn't show itself as a detriment to the finished wine. But I do prefer to taste nature in its full, naked glory.


TWG said...

We need insider secrets on how to obtain some.

David McDuff said...

No insider secrets on this one, Tom, other than making sure you're on the mailing list for CSW and/or other stockists who sell Overnoy/Houillon when available. And jump when you see the offer come through.

I waited a couple of hours when the Ploussard offer came through last fall and missed out. This bottle of Savagnin had been in my cellar since sometime last year.

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