Margaux third-growth Château Giscours will square off with Bordeaux's prosecutor in the city's criminal tribunal in June over charges of illegal chaptalization. The authorities have accused the Bordeaux winery of adding sugar to a vat of Merlot during the 2016 harvest when officials had only authorized chaptalization of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. But the château is placing the blame squarely on France's lethargic and byzantine administration.
The battle is drawing unwanted attention to both the practice of chaptalization and the complexities of French bureaucracy just as guests from around the world taste barrel samples of the 2017 vintage.
"This is a very frustrating story for the whole team," Alexander Van Beek, director of Giscours, told Wine Spectator. Van Beek vehemently denies any intent to falsify the estate's wine production and argues that it's time for France's cumbersome bureaucracy to shift into a faster gear. "France's heavy administrative logistics must change."
Giscours' troubles started at the end of the 2016 harvest. A plot of their Merlot had been picked and filled about 20 percent of a vat. The remaining 80 percent of grapes in the vat were Cabernet Sauvignon.
Giscours had requested permission to add sugar—which can only be added at a specific point during fermentation—to all grape varieties, and received an email from the Margaux wine syndicate, the Organisme de défense et de gestion (ODG), on Oct. 10, 2016 at 2:32 p.m. "The ODG said they had received informal approval from the INAO [the agency that oversees appellations] saying it's OK, go ahead," explained Van Beek.
Gonzague Lurton, president of the Margaux ODG and owner of Château Durfort-Vivens, confirmed that the email told the growers that they could chaptalize the grape must to 1° additional brix. The ODG issued the email after receiving urgent requests from growers who had begun fermentation.
Giscours proceeded with chaptalization, only to learn at 3:13 pm that Merlot had been excluded from the authorization. Chaptalization was only allowed for Cabernet Sauvignon.
Lurton acknowledged that the first email had erroneously neglected to mention the exclusion of Merlot.
The case raises questions about how widespread chaptalization is. During the 2016 harvest, the entire Médoc requested and received authorization to chaptalize for all grape varieties—except Margaux, which failed to get authorization for the Merlot. Giscours was not the only Margaux estate to request chaptalization for all grape varieties. In fact, explained Van Beek, it’s a banal request made “systematically” most years, for all grape varieties, but rarely used except in the case of young vines which might need a boost.
Lurton confirmed that Giscours had correctly followed procedures requesting authorization to chaptalize the Merlot but that the ODG, in its haste to send the requests to the INAO, had not received enough information from the other growers regarding the Merlot, so it had not included that grape variety in its request.
Despite facing charges of falsification alongside his co-defendants, namely the château and the technical director, Van Beek chose not to blame the ODG for what could become a stain on an otherwise irreproachable career.
"The ODG is under a lot of pressure to satisfy its members. Harvest is always a stressful time. You can't ask for permission to chaptalize a week in advance—it's always last minute," explained Van Beek. "But the administrative weight of the whole system is too complicated and long, especially considering the speed of information today."
After the grower sends the requested information to the ODG, the ODG then sends the information to the INAO, which then groups the requests and sends them to the Prefet in the region. The Prefet makes a decision, notifies the government minister, who must sign off, and the decision is sent back down the chain. The approval process can take as long as eight days.
While the approval was slow, the fallout was not. On Oct. 14, 2016, investigators from the anti-fraud agency arrived at Giscours, demanding the cellar paperwork.
During the ensuing weeks, the vat containing 20 percent Merlot had been blended with another vat—typical in Bordeaux where wines are blends of grape varieties and plots—which meant that 39,700 liters, the equivalent of 4,400 cases of wine, had been 'touched' by the chaptalized Merlot. The entire lot has been set aside and separated from the final blend. It has not been put on the market. It's valued at $2.8 million.
Lurton expressed dismay that the prosecutor has decided to press criminal charges. He blames the dysfunctional and lethargic decision-making process around chaptalization in France, which is at odds with the extreme speed required of winegrowers at the start of fermentation, as the reason for Giscours' woes, not a willful intent to ignore the rules.
The charges are particularly painful for Giscours team: The château’s team has worked for a decade to overcome the stigma of a fraud scandal perpetrated by the previous management team. But they are taking comfort from their neighbors. “We have received an enormous amount of support from our colleagues," said Van Beek. "This could happen to anyone."
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