The Changing Reality of Chaptalization in Savoie
Today, a small group of young, low-intervention wine producers in Savoie are circumventing the tradition of chaptalizing Mondeuse, the region’s star red variety. The movement stems mainly from the effects of climate change in the Alps but is fueled by their farming and winemaking ideologies. Their expressions of Mondeuse, which tend to be brisker than chaptalized cuvées, are becoming the darlings of natural wine stores and restaurants in cities across the globe. These minimalist vignerons are building upon the achievements of prior generations and encouraging a palpable excitement for Savoie wines in the modern market, especially amongst a younger demographic of drinkers.
Chaptalization is a form of enrichment commonly used in winemaking to compensate for the low sugar levels of grapes that struggle to ripen adequately before harvest. In practice, a winemaker typically adds sugar to their grape must before fermentation, guiding the wine toward a higher ABV, potentially adding volume to its texture and amplifying its flavors. It is not at all specific to Savoie, but, as the area becomes more well-known to consumers, questions about chaptalization and Mondeuse are buzzing.
Before investigating the choices of the winemaker and how they relate to chaptalization, it’s crucial to understand the effects of global warming on Mondeuse. “As a late ripening grape,” writes Wink Lorch in her book, Wines of the French Alps, “vintage conditions make a big difference to Mondeuse wines, and it is very much a beneficiary of climate change.” If global warming in Savoie didn’t exist, the foundation for low-intervention vinification of marketable Mondeuse likely wouldn’t either.
That said, even as overall temperatures rise, the ultimate alcohol level of Mondeuse is determined very much by the particular site in Savoie from which the fruit is cultivated. According to Savoie winemaker Matthieu Apffel, “It’s not uncommon to harvest Mondeuse with potential alcohol levels of 10% ABV or less,” depending on the location of the vines. It is clear that, even in exceptionally warm vintages, 12.5% is the ceiling for potential alcohol. Of course, potential alcohol is just that. For example, a winemaker might start a whole-cluster fermentation of Mondeuse with 12% potential alcohol, and, without chaptalization, his wine will achieve an ultimate 10.5% ABV. Despite all variables, dedicated winemakers are navigating the uncertain climatic and oenological circumstances without enrichment, which is very new.
Mondeuse, as a wine, displays aromas and flavors of dark fruits, like plums and blackberries, along with grassy and herbal qualities. Structure-wise, there is typically a lengthy mineral core. Tannic strength can range from a wispy prickle to an engaging chew.
“Until the last five years, most of the very best Mondeuse wines I have drunk… would have been from chaptalized musts,” says Lorch. She has been drinking Mondeuse for thirty years and, in her book, she writes, “[it] was a fine Mondeuse” from prolific vigneron Louis Magnin and his wife, Béatrice, that “made me realize Savoie wines could be of serious quality.”
“[Since] the early 1990s, I have regularly visited [their] little tasting room in Arbin,” she continues. ”The development of their estate has almost seemed like a microcosm of the whole Savoie wine region.”
Magnin is an icon to fans of Mondeuse, and more than half of his current estate is planted to it. He took control of his family’s domaine in the 1980s, at a moment when, as he puts it, winemakers in his area “abused” chaptalization. “It was a time when consumption was important and the consumer thought that the degree [of alcohol in a wine] was a sign of quality,” he says.
But in the 90s, Magnin made the critical decision to limit the vigor of his crop. “We… obtained [better] maturities, which resulted in a drop in sugar enrichment,” he explains. Lower yields are a testament to more pragmatic, careful farming, and Magnin has long been a follower of sustainable viticulture, years before receiving organic certification through Ecocert in 2012. Keeping yields low likely bears riper, sweeter Mondeuse. This type of farming had been slow to win over the general winemaking community in Savoie. Still, a noticeable appreciation and application began at the end of the 20th century. “Since 2000, global warming and organic production have allowed us to drastically and even completely reduce chaptalization in some years,” says Magnin.
Members of a new wave of vignerons similarly balance their yields with organic and biodynamic techniques but take an even more dogmatic vinification approach and eschew chaptalization as a rule. “We haven’t chaptalized Mondeuse since 2017,” says Nicolas Ferrand of Domaine des Côtes Rousses. He is a first-generation winemaker and started his domaine in 2011. His fruit comes from Saint Jean de la Porte, a village just a 10-minute drive east from Magnin in Arbin. He ferments with only indigenous yeasts, without sulfur additions, and bottles without filtration. To Ferrand, “Chaptalization has developed with modern oenology and the globalization of wine markets.”
“Before, Mondeuse was a simple peasant wine drunk locally,” Ferrand says. “It is in this logic that we vinify it. Single-ingredient wines!” There is a particular pride in young winemakers here who have broken from more conventional techniques like enrichment.
Domaine des Côtes Rousses’ most important Mondeuse cuvée, Coteau de la Mort, can be found worldwide, from Hong Kong to New York City, and has been very well received in popular dens of the natural wine trade. Many young consumers are gravitating toward these types of minimalist wines, searching for what they might call the truest, unaltered expression of a grape. Ferrand is quickly becoming one of the more prominent figures in today’s Mondeuse scene because of it. The 2020 vintage of Coteau de la Mort weighs in at 11% ABV.
Sylvain Liotard of the organic and biodynamic estate Domaine des 13 Lunes, located under the Chartreuse Massif across the valley from Magnin and Ferrand, believes consumer palates are also changing. Like Ferrand, he doesn’t chaptalize his Mondeuse. “They are looking for wines with less heat, with more balance and acidity. Low degrees [of alcohol] no longer bothers the new wine drinker,” he says. Lighter, fresher reds are becoming a popular style in our current era of consumption, with a growing camp of wine consumers focused on drinkability rather than heft. “What once penalized us… has become an asset,” says Magnin.
The zero-chaptalization movement of Mondeuse will be something to follow in Savoie, as legends like Magnin are looking to retire, and passionate, talented vignerons like Ferrand are taking up the mantle. Those eliminating chaptalization are adherents of small-scale, sustainable agriculture and are only just beginning. This community is a tiny fraction of the producers in Savoie – with larger estates continuing to produce huge yields of Mondeuse that will require chaptalization, as Lorch predicts. There are also winemakers that will do it sparingly, depending on the vintage. Still, albeit a small cohort, those avoiding chaptalization are a vital contingent of vignerons, bringing to the market, with their expressions of Mondeuse, the type of wine that many modern enthusiasts are demanding.