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They Won, We Lost

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: February 3, 2000

They Won, We Lost
By Per-Henrik Mansson, senior editor

Let's study the aftermath of a mass uprising of Burgundian winemakers. The uprising occurred about a year ago, when more than 450 of the Côte d'Or's 1,500 registered growers defied the French antifraud authorities.

This took guts. Nobody messes around lightly with France's feared Service de Repression des Fraudes. Yet during the 1997 harvest, the Burgundians tried to knock down a pillar of French and European winemaking law: They added sugar and tartaric acid to the same vats of wine, and many admitted doing it at the same time.

When Wine Spectator broke the story (The Sweet With the Sour, Jan. 31), it set off alarms in Paris and Brussels, Belgium, where the Commission of the European Union legislates wine matters. It had been legal to add sugar or acidity, but not to do both operations in the same vat, and certainly never at the same time.

Amazingly, the Burgundians won. They beat the bureaucrats. In the '98 harvest, the French government caved in to their demands. Now the winemakers may add sugar and acid to the same vat. All they have to do is ask. It still remains illegal to do both operations at the same time, although many winemakers ignored that stipulation this fall.

The Burgundians claim they won the right to produce clean, stable wines, which should be a boon to consumers. In reality, however, I believe that they won a license to make mediocre wines. Their victory is our loss.

Not that tartaric acid is dangerous. It's basically a natural grape by-product that poses no known health hazard. Acid adjustment is routinely used in the making of many wines in California, where the grapes' natural acidity can be low. So what's my beef?

Acid-adjusted red and white Burgundies can taste hard, tart and unnatural. The Pinot Noirs may get a boost in color and fresh fruit character, and they may appear to be good aging candidates, because wines need a healthy acidic balance to help them age well. But this can be deceptive: You lay them down in your cellar only to find faded, disjointed wines five or 10 years later. A case in point are many '89 red Burgundies. Acidified illegally, they looked very good when young, but many have now fallen apart.

So why acidify? Some winemakers do it out of bad habit. Some wines truly need the window dressing. If it's not done, an expensive Burgundy may have to be declassed to a lower appellation.

As Deep Throat said, "Follow the money." This is a money issue, where the currency is high yields. High yields mean more wine to sell and more income for the growers. And greed has encouraged growers to overcrop their vineyards. Between 1960 and 1990, yields jumped 50 percent in the Côte d'Or.

High yields, especially in rainy vintages--common in rain-plagued Burgundy--cause serious dilution. Grapes are gorged with water, resulting in low percentages of natural sugar and acidity.

The Burgundians solve the sugar problem through a legal process called chaptalizing, which involves adding sugar during fermentation to boost the alcohol level of the wine. Often, they've solved the second problem secretly by acidifying. Growers reason correctly that low acidity can cause bacterial spoilage and make the wine taste vinegary.

And sometimes a freakish heat wave lowers acidity levels and requires emergency action. It happened in '97 and '98, when even top vignerons had to acidify certain vats.

Still, many domaines try to do the heroic thing to avoid having to acidify. They believe that it's essential to produce balanced grapes and wines. So they make the right moves. They lower yields, farm organically, don't spray herbicides, invest in cooling and other equipment.

But such serious work is eschewed by unscrupulous wineries, which account for much bad Burgundy. And now that they have government absolution to "balance" their wines with tartaric acid, their wines might get even worse.

Acidification becomes just another corner to cut, shortchanging the customers--us. Perhaps the day may come when Burgundy aficionados stay loyal no longer. If that happens, the Burgundians may find that they won a Pyrrhic victory in '98. Greed has a price.

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 different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson, in a column also appearing in the Dec. 31-Jan. 15 issue. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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