French wine hit by second scandal

THE FRENCH wine industry, still recovering from the ignominious case of the Bordeaux milk-shake, has been struck by another alleged scandal: the saga of the sweet-and-sour Burgundy.

It is suggested - even admitted - that some of the most prestigious and expensive red burgundies sold at the Hospices de Beaune auction last November were doctored with sugar and tartaric acid. While it is permitted to treat wine with one substance or the other, it is illegal under EU regulations to use both at once.

The allegations, made by the newspaper Liberation, are not so clear-cut as the wrong-doings under criminal investigation at the Chateau Giscours in the Margaux area of the Bordeaux vineyards. There, two senior employees face possible charges of fraud after mixing milk, water, acid and cheaper, local red wine into the chateau's 1995 second vintage.

But to wine purists the goings-on in Burgundy may be more disturbing, because they appear to be more widespread and are officially tolerated.

The Hospices de Beaune auctions, which take place every third Sunday in November, are one of the most celebrated events in the global wine calendar. Buyers from all over the world bid for barrels of wine from small plots of the best Burgundy vineyards which have been bequeathed to the local hospitals over the centuries. The words Hospices de Beaune on a label carry enormous prestige - or snob value.

Liberation reported that some of the grapes for the past year's vintage were picked too early and lacked sugar. Andre Porcheret, chief wine-maker for the Hospices de Beaune, admitted to the newspaper that he had added sugar to the raw grape juice. There is nothing wrong with that in itself, but he also admitted to having added extra tartaric acid (which occurs naturally in wine) to the same vintage.

Such a combination is illegal under EU regulations, since it radically alters the character and quality of the wine. It would be possible, using water, sugar and tartaric acid, to manufacture wine without grapes.

Mr Porcheret and the head of the Hospices de Beaunes, Antoine Jacquet, have confirmed the facts but denied any wrong-doing. They claim that, since the sugar and acid were added at different stages, they did not infringe the rules.

Not everyone agrees with this interpretation, but the institute which polices Appellation Controlee wines in France says that it does not intend to take any action.

The events in Burgundy and Bordeaux certainly deal a serious blow to the French claim to superiority over New World wine producers.

The claim is rooted in the French concept that the best wine "occurs", it cannot be manufactured. In other words, the best wines are produced, skilfully but also mysteriously, from a particular location and particular soil - terroir. They cannot be processed and blended to achieve a desired level of quality and taste, like some high-priced American or Australian wines.

Some foreign - and French - wine writers have been protesting for several years about the almost mystical French approach. Now it is being betrayed by the lax controls of the country's wine authorities.

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