Legalize It: Why Sugar Additions Should Be Allowed in California Wine

The state's law against chaptalization is antiquated, useless and an insult to the growing diversity of the state's terroirs
Jun 20, 2013

"We have chaptalized. We have done in it California, on rare occasions, but we have, and we've done it in wines from Oregon, again on fairly rare occasions." That's probably not something you'd expect to hear from any veteran winemaker, much less Adam Lee, co-owner of Siduri and Novy Family, whose current releases total 37 single-vineyard and appellation bottlings, from the Sta. Rita Hills in California's Central Coast up to the Chehalem Mountains, in Oregon's Willamette Valley. After all, in California, chaptalization—the addition of sugar during fermentation—has long been illegal.

It's time to change that.

Today, winemakers can coax out their vision of a site and grape using a near-infinite permutation of fermentation styles, yeast regimens, rack-and-return cycles, chemical preservatives, acid enhancements, bleeding off, spinning out, reverse osmosis, Flash-Détente concentration, artificial coloring and the addition of sugar via grape concentrate anyway. In Oregon, Washington and New York, chaptalization is legal (federal regulations put a 25 Brix ceiling on it). Why do we let an antiquated rule keep chaptalization out of the California winemaker's quiver?

The thinking went that California never has a problem with ripening grapes. That there are "no vintages," unlike the great, climatically finicky vineyards of France, where the technique of mixing sugar into an insufficiently ripe must was pioneered. It's an outdated mindset arm-in-arm with that cherished axiom "California wines are superripe and alcoholic."

In truth, even in just the last decade, we've seen increasing recognition of the vast diversity of the state's soils and climates, with arguably the most exciting activity in areas like the far Sonoma Coast and the Santa Lucia Highlands, which not long ago were considered too cool and inhospitable for high-quality vinifera. "They're not as safe in the sense that there's more variation year to year, but we can make more interesting wines," another California winemaker exploring the possibilities of this type of terroir—who has chaptalized—told me anonymously. But "there are certain vintages where the green flavors may have evolved out and the acidity is still quite good, but you're looking at 19 Brix," a sugar level that would put the finished wine under 11 percent alcohol, usually too light a frame to support the intense, complex characteristics the wine may have developed. (For comparison, in warmer climates like Napa, 26 Brix or more is not unusual—nor desirable for cooler-climate prospectors.)

Is there any place in California where it's as or more necessary to chaptalize as Oregon? "Maybe as necessary," said Lee, who also specializes in cool climates. "It's going to be a combination of very cool climates and very late-ripening grapes." Thus, in such regions, the consensus is chaptalization is typically more necessary for Syrah than Pinot.

"I've never found that you want to do major chaptalization additions, [just] like any other addition you do," Lee said. He could only think of three recent vintages (1999, 2005 and 2011) when he needed the sugar lift in any of his California cuvées.

The law against chaptalization dates back to a time when California wine was mostly big business. (The first post-Prohibition prohibition of it went into effect in 1946, and some premium vintners like Napa's Charles Krug were pledging against chaptalization as early as the 1870s.) Growers were at the mercy, or often lack thereof, of corporate wineries. In the old days, imprecise viticulture, among other factors, made it harder and costlier to ripen grapes, and growers were rewarded with bonuses for high sugar levels—an advantage that obviously disappeared if the winery could just add sugar itself. This is why it is legal to add grape concentrate to fermenting must; that didn't hurt the growers. But today, bulk growers have little trouble achieving both high yields and ripeness.

For fine winemakers like Lee, the concentrate solution is unpalatable. "The problem with concentrate is it adds flavor in addition to adding sugar. If you're happy with the flavors and you just think the wine's going to need a little more body, a little more finished alcohol, why would you add something that adds flavor from another place? If you want to be as true to the place as you can, I don't understand why you would do that."

It is hard to gauge how strictly chaptalization is policed, but the fear is itself damaging. The law "is potentially serving as a deterrent for people from checking out more interesting terroir," said the other winemaker, who makes sugar additions in, literally, the dead of night. "We've got a license, and if we lose that, we're out of business."

Chaptalization will never be broadly useful in California, but a statewide ban is a statement that California's terroir is California, not Napa and Santa Lucia, much less Mount Veeder and Garys' Vineyard. If you've ever had a Syrah from, say, the western Sonoma Coast, you know what a wholly unique expression of grape and place it can be. But a small winery trying to turn a profit already has a million reasons never to try growing or making the stuff. The fear of getting slapped for making a slight sugar adjustment to balance out an otherwise integrated wine shouldn't be one.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter, at twitter.com/BenODonn.

Legal and Legislative Issues Appellation Regulations Winemaking Techniques Explained United States California

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