With intervention commonplace in winemaking, TOM CANNAVAN meets a new group of winemakers who insist on producing sweet wines the natural way.
As long shadows fall on a beautiful sunlit evening in Sauternes, it is easy to appreciate that not all sweet wines are created equal. The elegant Château Guiraud has thrown open its doors for the launch of a new association of winemakers from across France, called ‘Sapros’. Membership is drawn from small pockets of fanaticism all over the country. The name Sapros is a clue. From the Greek word meaning ‘rotten, putrid, spoiled’, this is an association that celebrates botrytis cinerea, the ‘Noble Rot’.
In the vineyard
Wine can be made sweet in the winery, by adding unfermented grape juice or, in fortified wines like port, by stopping fermentation with a dose of brandy while some sugar remains unconverted into alcohol. However, the finest sweet wines are made not in the winery but the vineyard. Grapes are given time to develop naturally concentrated sugars in a super-ripening process. This is much less predictable, and each vintage is subject to nature’s vagaries – especially true for those who await the right combination of sun, wind and mist to create conditions for botrytis. The botrytis rot can magically concentrate the complex sugars and acids in grapes, allowing water content to evaporate. The result: a thick and sweet juice that makes a luscious, balanced wine. President of Sapros is Jean Thévenet of Domaine de la Bongran in Burgundy’s Mâconnais. Thévenet makes wine from Chardonnay grapes at three levels of increasing richness and sweetness; the top cuvée is 100% botrytised. Thévenet is a driven winemaker and maverick, who has battled with the strictures of the AC system. His brilliant wines have been denied a higher designation than basic Mâcon-Villages, simply because they are outside the norm. He is a natural first president for Sapros: a clearly passionate winemaker who will not compromise. The association’s motto is ‘Escorting Mother Nature’. By implication, members accept the inherent hazards of their natural winemaking path, and reject ‘artificial’ practices that are common in the making of sweet wines in France.
Taking a stand
The top target is chaptalisation: a practice that does not rely solely on late harvesting or botrytis to enrich the fermenting must, but also on added sugar. Chaptalisation is illegal for botrytised wines in Alsace, but is both legal and commonplace in other sweet wine appellations of France. Though most of the added sugar will be converted by fermentation into increased alcohol, the finished wine is artificially enriched. Using chaptalisation, crucially, can also guarantee that more wine is made, as botrytised grapes give dramatically reduced volumes of juice when pressed. In his book La Morale d’Yquem (Editions Grasset, France, 1999), Alexandre de Lur Saluces suggests that the sweet winemaker who does not chaptalise loses half the volume of must. A judicious sack or two of cane sugar can artificially enrich less noble juice and eke out production.
It is a perhaps shocking thought that of all the châteaux in Sauternes, only four claim never to chaptalise. Patrick Baudouin, leading winemaker and tireless campaigner against chaptalisation from Côteaux du Layon in the Loire, estimates that 95% of sweet wines in France are chaptalised. Sapros also rejects other forms of intervention, like the use of laboratory yeasts, machines that concentrate the must by removing water content, and ‘cryoextractor’ machines that artificially replicate the process that creates ice wine. It is hard for any wine lover to argue with the ethos of Sapros. Its dozen or so founding members are leading by example, and the wines they presented at Château Guiraud spoke volumes.
Tom Cannavan is publisher of wine-pages.com and author of The Good Web Guide to Wine