Concluding a scandal that's further tarnished the image of Beaujolais, a French court came down hard on 53 wine producers found guilty of using excessive amounts of sugar to raise alcohol levels in their 2004 wines, imposing severe fines.
In a decision read without comment Tuesday by a court officer in the town of Villefranche-sur-Saône, the court fined the vignerons—who produced Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages wines for sale to wine cooperatives and négociant houses—penalties ranging from 2,000 to 20,000 euros, or about $2,600 to $26,000. The fines were higher than prosecutors had requested.
"No one expected this. It is extremely harsh," said Michel Desilets, a lawyer representing 41 of the producers. Desilets said he will consider an appeal after a written statement by the court is issued. "I fear that a good half of these growers won't be able to continue. Some will have to sell their vineyards to pay these fines."
Two middlemen accused of selling sugar to producers without receipts were convicted and fined $32,000 and $46,000 respectively and sentenced to six months probation and one year of prison respectively. Three supermarkets and their directors—also accused of selling sugar without legal documentation—were given fines ranging from $5,000 to $26,000.
The convictions come after years of decreasing demand and falling vineyard prices in Beaujolais. At the heart of the case is France's—and Europe's—system regulating chaptalization (where sugar is added to grape must to boost the resulting wine's alcohol content), and questions of whether individuals among the region's 3,500 producers committed fraud or acted in good faith.
In what appeared to be a strong message, the court's penalties were harsher toward the winegrowers and more lenient toward the supermarkets and their executives than what prosecutors had called for. Dominique Capart, president of Inter-Beaujolais, the region's wine trade group, strongly objected. "It is like punishing the dealer less than the person who smokes the joint," said Capart.
The 2004 vintage was notoriously difficult in Beaujolais, marked by a cold and rainy growing season that mostly produced less-than-mature fruit. Many vignerons picked their Gamay at sugar levels corresponding to an average of 10 to 11 percent alcohol, well shy of the 12 percent required for wine sold under the Beaujolais appellation, according to Capart.
Legally, winemakers in Beaujolais are allowed to add enough sugar to boost alcohol by 2 percentage points. Beaujolais winemakers asked French appellation authorities for an exemption, an increase of half a point to 2.5 percentage points, a level allowed at that time to the east in the Savoy and the west in the lower Loire Valley. Capart said many of the producers had expected the chaptalization increase to be approved. It was not.
"Twenty years ago people enjoyed wine at 12 percent [alcohol]," Capart said. "Now with the market and taste the way it is, they want wine a bit more alcoholic." The convicted producers boosted their wine alcohol levels between 2.1 to 2.7 percent. Some of the producers declared the amounts of sugar used to the appellation authorities; others did not.
The timing of the penalties adds to their sting, coming as Beaujolais tries to rebuild its image in a difficult world-business climate. "The whole affair is not very valuable for the image of Beaujolais and the confidence of clients," Capart said. "It was a mistake. It happened. One thing is sure—it must not happen again."
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