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France's Sweet-Wine Makers Stick Together to Promote Natural Methods

Helena Bachmann
Posted: August 20, 2001

Thirteen French vintners have joined forces to defend naturally made sweet wines and to combat what they see as an increasing reliance on "industrial" methods to produce dessert wines.

The group has set up an association to promote all natural methods of making sweet wines, but their main focus is on the uniqueness of wines made with grapes affected by "noble rot," a favorable form of the fungus Botrytis cinerea. Sauternes is the most famed of such botrytized French wines, but the group brings together vintners from appellations throughout France, such as Alsace, Condrieu, Gaillac, Jasnières, Montlouis and Quarts de Chaume.

The association's members oppose certain techniques commonly used in France and elsewhere, such as cryoextraction (freezing the grapes in an artificial environment before pressing to concentrate the sugars), reverse osmosis (concentrating the grape must by removing water) and chaptalization (adding sugar before or during fermentation) -- all of which they say are "artificial" ways of enhancing a wine's sweetness.

France and the European Union allow 2 percent to 2.5 percent sugar to be added to wines, depending on the appellation, but labeling the wines as chaptalized is not obligatory. In some areas, such as Sauternes, cryoextraction and reverse osmosis are illegal, but authorities grant permission to chaptalize almost every year, according to Christian Bechet, assistant director of the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, which oversees France's appellation system.

"Botrytization is more time-consuming and risky, but it produces truly great, naturally sweet wines," said association president Jean Thevenet, of Domaine de Bongran in Burgundy's Mâcon district; he made about 330 cases of botrytized wine in 2000. "The scarcity and nobility of the sugars created by these environments are a million miles away from the current fashion for artificial sweetness."

Botrytis forms on the skin of grapes and dehydrates them, thereby concentrating the juice, which produces naturally sweet wines with distinctive, deep flavors of honey and dried fruit. Growing botrytis-affected grapes requires patience and painstaking efforts (such as handpicking in multiple passes) on the grower's part, as well as suitable climatic conditions for development -- autumn heat and humidity. The yields are unpredictable and very low, and the resulting wines tend to be expensive.

Only 1 percent of all sweet wines in France are made from grapes affected by noble rot, according Patrick Baudouin of Domaine Patrick Baudouin in the Loire Valley appellation of Coteaux du Layon, a major French region for late-harvest wines. And among French consumers, he said, "These wines are not as well known as they should be."

The association -- called Sapros, which in ancient Greek means "noble rot" -- aims to make naturally sweet wines better known to the public and "to make our voices heard," said Philippe Delesvaux, a winegrower in Coteaux du Layon. The group is considering labeling their bottles so that consumers will know the wines have not been artificially sweetened.

The group's members note that vintners find techniques such as chaptalization tempting because they save money, increase profits and can make up for lack of good weather. But they believe that it's better to make less-sweet wines in lesser years, such as when botrytis doesn't set in, than to resort to these other methods.

Association member Xavier Planty, managing director of Château Guiraud in Sauternes, complains that many of his neighbors in Bordeaux's famous sweet-wine appellation routinely boost their sweet wines through chaptalization, which he says was meant to be permitted by authorities only in exceptionally difficult and rainy vintages. "Regardless of the years, Sauternes is allowed to chaptalize. It's become systematic," said Planty, who added that top estates, such as Guiraud and Château d'Yquem, both members of Sapros, don't chaptalize.

"It is perhaps surprising that vintners from different winegrowing regions got together, but we all share the same work ethic and strong attachment to our land," said Planty. "We are all convinced that only naturally sweetened wines truly reflect the flavor, expression and complexity of grapes and soil on which they grew," he said. "No artificial method can even come close."

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Learn more about sweet wines from France:

  • Sept. 15, 2000
    Loire's Sweet Triumph

  • June 15, 2000
    Alsace's Bright Summer Whites

  • May 15, 1999
    Three Centuries of Château d'Yquem
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