Vive Le Vin Nature!
By Per-Henrik Mansson, senior editor
Recently I fetched from my bone-shivering underground cellar a delicious red Burgundy that tasted pure and natural. Drinking this authentic wine, I raised a toast to the memory of Marcelin Albert. We owe the Frenchman a lot, indeed more than we suspect.
Albert rose to fame early this century. He was a man who fought for unadulterated wine, and his activism led to real change. Much of the French laws defining wine and governing winemaking can be tracked, in some part, to Albert. He set a lot in motion. And a month ago this week, his contribution nudged my memory into motion, too.
I thought of his legacy in the context of a debate now taking place in Burgundy. In my November 18 story on the Hospices de Beaune wine auction -- see the Daily Report archives for details -- I reported that the famed domaine's red Burgundies, $3 million worth of wine, had been chaptalized and acidified.
That makes for an interesting legal riddle because French law prohibits the dual use in the same cuves of: a) sugar to boost the alcoholic content of a wine (chaptalization) and b) tartaric acid to stabilize the wine (acidification). As we will see, Albert's activities 90 years ago inspired aspects of this law.
I have 20 years of experience as a newspaper and magazine reporter, only six months as an Internet one. So I found myself fascinated by the fallout of the story. In this case, the Web origin of the story seemed to intrigue readers as much as its content, based on the feedback. Once downloaded by someone, whoever, my story about the Hospices was faxed, copied and passed around to winemakers, lawmakers and journalists in Burgundy. A cyberspace snowball-cum-avalanche.
As the story circulated, the Hospices' Pinot Noirs from the '97 vintage moved center stage in an age-old question: How natural or manipulated can a wine be before its quality curve falls off the cliff? Albert would turn in his grave if he heard some Burgundians' answer to that question.
A gentle man, there was little in Albert's background to suggest that he would become a participant in the turbulent, sometimes violent history of wine. He farmed a small vineyard and operated a little cafe north of Narbonne, a town in France's Midi region. His vision might have pulled to a stop at the counter of the zinc or wood bar where other vignerons came to confess their misery over bottles of generic red. But Albert had a date with history.
So, there he is: a footnote in one book, "Le Vin et ses Fraudes" by Jean-Francois Gautier; a partial chapter in "Vintage: The Story of Wine" by Hugh Johnson; and even a full chapter in yet another important work, "Vins, Vignes et Vignerons: Histoire du Vignoble Francais" by Marcel Lachiver.
Levelheaded and soft-spoken, he possessed the natural authority of a leader. Men of diverse opinions felt comfortable following him, confident about his sense of fairness. Eloquent and charismatic, Albert led a mass uprising of wine growers in southern France.
In 1907, Albert and his cohorts took to the streets, campaigning against fraudulent wine. They marched on the cities to the slogans of "Vive le vin nature!" and "Death to the poisoners!" They surrounded city halls, forcing entire city councils to resign overnight. They faced down Prime Minister "Le Tigre" Clemenceau's soldiers. Guns were fired. Blood was shed.
The vine growers had suffered a ruinous decline in income when grape prices dropped sharply. There was simply too much wine around even though the French wet their whistles at a good rate.
Most of the wine lake came from overcropping. The vineyards, replanted after phylloxera with high-yielding roostocks, cranked out fruit at high gear. Yields doubled between the years before and after phylloxera.
Phylloxera had also given birth to a competitor: Algeria. The colony had planted lots of vineyards to supply phylloxera-plagued France. Franco-Algerian blends became another tributary to the wine flood.
Cutting production would have stabilized prices. But you don't mobilize vine growers with supply economics reality that suggests downsizing their family-owned vineyards as a solution. A sexier reason was needed to turn the vignerons into demonstrators. The leaders found a convenient scapegoat in the cheaters whom they accused were flooding the market with fraudulent "wine."
They weren't entirely off the mark. Before the wine lake of the early 1900s, there had been the wine drought of the late 1800s. When wine went lacking, fraud became a big business.
Blame it on that notorious American import, phylloxera. Officially discovered in 1863, the yellow, root-feeding loose chewed its way through the French vineyards. National wine production shrunk by one-third. To supply the French with wine -- beer had not caught on in France -- quick-franc entrepreneurs turned to profitable alternatives. They made "raisin wine" with dried raisins imported from Greece and Turkey. And they made artificial wines.
"The Art of Making Wine With Dried Raisins" became a best-seller, with 12 editions published between 1881 and 1886. It described the easy procedure to manufacture "wine." Take 100 kilos of dried raisins, soak them in 300 liters of warm water, ferment the whole for a dozen days. Voila. The mixture has become 300 liters of "wine" with an alcohol strength of 10 to 11 percent. Various coloring methods existed to turn this liquid either into "red wine" or "white wine." And to enrich the alcohol strength, a bit of high-octane Algerian wine might just do.
High-commerce types also mined another market: artificial wine. After making their regular wine from grapes, winemakers put to good use a pastelike, post-fermentation mass called pomace. It's made up of pips, skins, stems and pulp left in the cuves after the wine has been drained from the cuve.
The winemakers threw warmish water on the pomace and added beet sugar, then let the sugar ferment eight to 12 days. They could make 100 liters of wine at an alcoholic strength of 10 percent or so by adding 17 kilos of beet sugar to 100 liters of water. They then added coloring products and stabilized it all with tartaric acid.
In the early 1900s the markets for these fraudulent wines dried up, but their time in the limelight showed how easy it was to cheat the consumers. French lawmakers cracked down on the frauds as a result of the rebellion headed by Albert during the years leading up to La Revolte de 1907.
Albert's nom de guerre -- the Apostle, aka the Redeemer -- hints at his belief in a nonviolent approach to the cause he fought against the government and the evils of fraudulent wine. But when crowds of almost 1 million came to hear him speak, it sometimes got out of hand.
On June 20, 1907, soldiers sent by Clemenceau clashed with demonstrators in Narbonne. The 139th Infantry Regiment fired at the approaching crowd, killing five. The tragedy didn't go unnoticed in Paris, and nine days later the country's shaken legislators exercised their power: they adopted a series of laws defining wine and winemaking. La Loi du 29 Juin 1907. Albert's legacy.
Paris had gotten the message. By the end of 1907, France had an anti-fraud agency, La Repression des Fraudes, to make sure that liquid passed off as wine was indeed the real McCoy. The law had defined wine as the result of "alcoholic fermentation of fresh grapes or grape must." No more artificial wines. To give teeth to law enforcers, circulation, sale and stocking of wine must now be recorded, as well as large trades of sugar. Fraud agencies had access to these records on short notice. Amendments throughout this century have strengthened the letter and the spirit of this law.
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It's against this historical background that a Burgundy vigneron has taken it upon himself to arm-wrestle with the French Repression des Fraudes. His name is Jean Mongeard of Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret in Vosne-Romanee, a famed commune in the Cote d'Or. He's 68 years old.
As president of a growers' group, L'Association des Viticulteurs de la Cote d'Or, he leads 1,500 growers. A great many of them demand more freedom to make their wines.
On the specific issues at hand, Mongeard plays Antichrist to Albert's Christ. The Burgundians ask they legally be allowed to both chaptalize and acidify the same cuves. They already do it -- witness the '97 reds from Domaine des Hospices de Beaune. And, they acknowledge, they have done both procedures frequently in the past, and want to come clear. Out of the closet. Legal. End of hypocrisy.
A laudable objective. But that's forgetting a sharp lady heading the wine division of the fraud agency in Paris. Dominique Filhol has 25 years of experience in the agency that came into existence on the coattails of Albert's rebellion nine decades ago. She's seen it all, but not quite the sort of open defiance that Mongeard and his group have shown in '97.
Basically, Mongeard's group advised its members to ignore the law, which stipulates clearly you may not chaptalize and acidify the "same product." The Burgundians figured a way to get around the semantics of that, and decided to chaptalize the must, acidify the wine. Since the must and wine are two products, they argued, their winemaking procedure was lawful. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of wineries followed this procedure, after Mongeard and his group advised them it was lawful.
As expected, Filhol didn't budge. You can see her point: If you start splitting hairs over different phases inside the cuvee, well, where might it all end? For all she knows, you could use these ingredients to make fake wine. So, until further notice, she said, it's still illegal to add sugar and tartaric acid in the same cuvee.
But Mongeard scoffs at old laws he considers outdated and antiquated. They were written, he notes, for a different era when fraud was widespread, and growers made artificial wine from sugar, water and tartaric acid. This is modern, quality-oriented Burgundy.
He just wants the winemakers to have, as a regular tool, the flexibility to adapt to difficult vintage conditions. He sees no harm in some winery adding a dose of tartaric acid and a bit of sugar to the same cuvees, as long as it can make a difference between a sound and a flawed wine in a difficult vintage.
As with all complicated arguments, shades of gray seep into this debate. Not all growers, or negociants, agree with Mongeard. Some support the current law because it forces them to choose between one or another enological measure: Either you chaptalize, or you acidify, but not both. Such an approach leads to more natural wines, instead of a concoction, they feel.
"The past has already proven that it is the most natural wines that will be the best," says Dominique Laurent, negociant in Nuits-St.-Georges.
But going natural has its risks. Some winemakers may not have the skills to overcome certain difficulties without propping up their wines with both sugar and tartaric acidity to save them from spoiling.
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The issue will be decided, in the end, at the highest level of lawmaking on the Continent, the European Commission. It will consider a petition to chaptalize the must and acidify the wine, as Mongeard proposes, if and when France presents such a request at the demand of the Burgundians. So far, the French Ministry of Agriculture hasn't done so.
While Mongeard's request might get a hearing before the Commission in 1998, I wouldn't bet that he'll win. My hunch isn't cosmic dreaming but rather based on a position paper the European Commission's Directorate General of Agriculture prepared for me.
I asked the Commission for a reaction to the Burgundians' proposal, and I received a 3-page fax in return from spokeswoman Stella Zervoudaki. The Commission is clearly ambivalent for the sort of change Mongeard's group is pressing for.
"Wine from the Burgundy area is protected by an Appellation of Origin. The use of wrong enological practices is obviously contrary to the logic of a wine commercialized as a natural and traditional product," writes Zervoudaki.
Nobody has forgotten history. And foremost on the European authorities' collective mind is minimizing overproduction and maximizing quality, two mutually inclusive concepts.
The acidification-chaptalization issue harks back to a sore subject: the wine lakes. They've plagued much of vinous Europe this century, as its first victims, Albert et al found out. High yields can produce poor wine, but it can be salvaged and commercialized if you can add sugar and acidity.
That's exactly what the European authorities want to avoid. The lawmakers have tried to encourage quality and discourage quantity by setting standards: The wines must have minimum acidity and natural alcohol levels. And the Commission has approved certain measures, including a ban on the use of both chaptalization and acidification on the same product, to accomplish its goal.
"Given the past problems of the notorious wine lakes," writes Zervoudaki, "it is unlikely, although possible, that these measures would be revoked." Vive le vin nature.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.