Perceiving chaptalization in the glass: is it possible? [wonky]

Here’s a question for all the (Northern European) wine geeks out there: Can you tell if a wine has been chaptalized based solely on the smell and taste?

Chaptalization is the term for adding sugar to wine to boost the alcohol level. It is legally permissible in parts of the wine world, particularly northern Europe. Some producers still use the practice, although global warming may be creating more ripe fruit, thus obviating the need. (In other parts of the world, notably where it is hotter, it is prohibited; indeed, it may be permissible to add acid.) Alternately known as enrichment or amelioration, the process occurs before or during fermentation. Although sucrose is usually the addition of choice, from either beet sugar or cane sugar, producers can add grape concentrate or even “rectified concentrated grape must.” Fermentation ensures no residual sugar is left behind since the sugars are converted into alcohol (and CO2).

An anonymous poster recently left a comment on this site claiming lab test showed a wine had been chaptalized (legally permissible) but failed to follow up with the lab report. He or she also suggested that a tasting of the white wine revealed notes of chaptalization, such as caramel and bonbon. Really? What do you think, is it possible to perceive chaptalization in the glass? If so, which sort of descriptors would you apply?

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20 Responses to “Perceiving chaptalization in the glass: is it possible? [wonky]”

  1. Was the white wine oaked or unoaked? Caramel and bonbon sound like oak notes to me.

  2. As a winemaker I will say that you shouldn’t feel the chaptalisation. But I think about two possibilities why they would have felt it.
    First the taste of the sugar itself, I was always able to tell if the sugar was from a beat or cane. So we can imagin that it could be felt in the wine after.
    Second in comparison to the same wine without chaptalisation, a wine with sugar added ferment a little different. There is a boost in the fermentation due to a higher work of the yeasts (more sugar to transform). This could create a stress to the yeasts as wel, that gives other kind of smell. In consequence, we will find more amylique family components, that smells like flowers, bonbon, marshmallow etc…
    So in conclusion, i guess with a bit of training you feel the difference in a white. In a red it is another story…

  3. I would think it would be hard to tell if all sugars are fermented out.

    For example, with Sherry, you can tell the difference between styles that use Concentrated Rectified Grape Must (cheaper) vs. PX (better quality) to sweeten sherry (the difference between a cheap cream and an Oloroso Dulce).

    But to say the caramel or bonbon is a product of the chaptalization (as opposed to the oak or other fermentation characteristics) – even with all sugars fermented out is subjective at best…

  4. In my honest opinion of my palate, I do not know if I could detect if a wine had undergone chaptilisation. It would be a great experiment/exercise if you could easily compare two similar wines. For example a chaptelised wine and a non-chaptelised from the same vineyard, perhaps two vintages.

    I don’t know what labeling requirements are for this. Do wineries need to label their wines that have been? My guess is that they don’t have to, nor would they (willingly).

    If anyone knows of a wine that has undergone chaptelisation, please let me know. I’d love to test out my rookie palate!


  5. Plenty of references to the indicators/effect of overt chaptalisation in Broadbent’s Vintage Wine books.



  6. Wow. What an interesting question.

  7. Unfortunately still legal in Sauternes and widely practised especially amongst the cheaper wines for sale in French supermarkets to partner Foie Gras etc.

    Barley sugar is a smell that comes to mind but most noticeable is the ‘deadening’ of a chaptelised wine a while after it has been poured. I find good non-chaptelised Sauternes will keep ages in the fridge and retain its freshness and flavours while after only an hour or so a chaptelised wine will close up and the sugaryness dominate.

  8. I don’t doubt that a winemaker might be able to tell, but I question the caramel and bonbon descriptors. I’m sure I’ve had a good number of QbA German wines that have been chaptalized and I don’t remember noticing those notes in any.

  9. If Chaptalization could be reliably detected in the glass, why would there be so much scientific literature about the difficulty of establishing whether a wine has been Chaptalized? (Detecting the presence of Beet Sugar in particular seems to require nuclear magnetic resonance…those of you who can detect it with your natural olfactory equipment are obviously missing an opportunity to make some big money here.)

  10. Hi Tyler,

    The bit I don’t understand is this bit: “claiming lab test showed a wine had been chaptalized (legally permissible)” – if chaptalisation is caried out it’s to add alcohol to wine. How can a lab test show that 1.5 points of the 13% abv points came from added sugar?

    In re tastes of chaptalisation – again, I don’t see where the flavours are coming from. The sugar is conerted to alcohol, not to aromatic compounds by and large. Further, any additional aromatics would be quite weak so it’s highly unlikely that any different flavours would be noticeable.

    While I don’t want to sound anti-blog there are two aspects to this that are annoying. First, I dislike anonymous posters – if you’ve something interesting to say then you should be willing to identify yourself. Second, this is an area where I’ll take advice from trained oenologists only, not wine geeks. As a Master of Wine one of the things I’ve learned is how little I know and how much I can learn but I want to learn from people who really know their stuff. This isn’t an opinion point, this relates to seriously technical stuff.

    Good luck to the USA today!

  11. Hmmm… Im not gonna say it’s impossible, but I’d need to see some scientific evidence to be convinced (i.e., measurable differences in how the yeasts ferment the added sugar vs. grape sugars, etc.)…

  12. Hi,
    In Answer to 1WineDude and Nolan.
    I did an experiment two years ago in weak rosé (From Tannat) and chardonnay. I added 16 gr/l of sugar(1% of alcohol). Because of temperature issues, I add the sugar at different moment. In the end I had complete wine profiles… So just to say that you will have an effect on the flavors, but at the same time other factors can influence as much.
    Also about the fact that yeast are just working with sugar, it is false, they will produce a bunch of molecules at the same time. With the different kind of grape juice they will produce different flavors…
    Finally I still think that’s hard to differentiate only by the nose. Or it’s because it has really badly done, and their is no integration of the flavors or residual sugars.

  13. Thanks, Nils!!

  14. There are no vines growing in Northern Europe, take it from a Finn! But to answer u’r question, I think not:)

  15. Let’s be naughty and also ask the question of whether in warmer climates you can tell whether there has been any acidification. In an ideal vineyard, in an ideal vintage, with the grapes picked at an ideal time, there shouldn’t need to be any sort of adjustment. Such conditions hardly ever arise.

    Which is where the art of the winemaker comes in. Just as a perfect human should need no enhancement, so a perfect wine should need no additions. But how often does such as wine occur? If grapegrowers and winemakers can provide the equivalent of a few hours in the beauty salon or gym, in order to approach perfection, then that sounds like no bad thing.

    However the problem then arises of who is providing the definition of perfection. And with wine, as with humans, there is no universal answer.

    And to get back to the subject, there are wines that have been acidified/chaptalized where you notice the adjustments, and there are others where you don’t. Which I know is completely unhelpful for those looking for a concrete answer. But wine doesn’t conform to scientific method.

  16. First, I love Mr. Nolan’s comment.

    Second, As a winemaker that has worked in cold, warm and hot growing climates and has used both chaptalization and acidification, it is my finding that detection all depends on the degree to which each is used. Chaptalization when used in small amounts (meaning raised 2-3 Brix) is virtually undetectable in moderately ripe grapes. Same with acidification. Moderation is key to balance in both instances. Adding sugar to super unripe grapes are a completely different story. Cabernet can be particularly difficult to hide sugar adds because the flavors in the grapes are not ripe, not because you can taste the sugar add. The trick to discovering sugar/acid adjustments is to note the ripeness of flavors and decide if the acid/alcohol balance makes sense for the flavor profile.

    As Dan pointed out the sugar (if fermented dry) coverts to alcohol not flavor compounds. These are made through related but different pathways during the fermentation process.

    Hope this helps!

  17. Huh? Um, no. Half the population can’t even tell if a wine is corked!

  18. I pretty much agree with Nova C.’s comments. I would tend to believe that a wine has had a considerable amount of sugar added when the flavour profile doesn’t match the ripeness level implied by the bottle’s alcohol level (assuming you know this – in Australia and NZ wine generally comes with a standard drinks rating which can allow you to determine the exact alcohol level in spite of whichever fictitious “% vol.” number is also printed on the label). Strangely, excessive chaptilisation seems to make the wine taste thinner and weedier, while at the same time heat from the alcohol becomes more apparent.

    Moderate chaptelisation should be much less detectible. I have never heard of particular aromas being caused by chaptilisation. But I would not be surprised if tiny chemical signatures could be detected by some chemical or physical analysis. As pointed out, most of the sugar is converted into CO2 and ethanol, but other trace chemicals and alcohols are produced and will probably vary depending on whether the yeasts are working on glucose, sucrose etc. Also, even in the dryest of wines the conversion to alcohol is not 100% and residual sugars will remain. But do you know anyone who could taste 0.1g of sucrose in a bottle of wine, and be sure it wasn’t another tiny amount of left over fructose?

  19. Anyone else impressed that I managed to mis-spell “chaptalisation” every single time in my previous comment?

  20. Easy enough to test. Blind taste 6 wines that have been chaptalized and 6 that have not. Personally I think it is BS but none of these opinions matter. Rank speculation.


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