Gundpowder, Treason and Rot Or How I Learned To Love The Eiffel Tower, Scientific Wines and Sugar

Gundpowder, Treason and Rot  Or  How I Learned To Love The Eiffel Tower, Scientific Wines and Sugar

While it may sound like something from a Dan Brown novel, in 1986 while performing the usual maintenance the Eiffel Tower, 72 names carved on to the four massive legs of the first floor, were revealed to the world. These huge carved panels of names formed a continuous pattern of names around the legs, rather like the names of gods running around an ancient temple.

The most obvious question is who were they and why were they there, the less obvious question, why had they been covered up.

Well, the names were those of 72 scientists and engineers, all French of course. They had been engraved on to panels attached to the structure of the first floor legs by Gustav Eiffel perhaps as homage to the rationalist, scientific community that had made France and Europe the powerhouse of the 19th century.

While generals and statesmen are often honoured in this way, this unique tribute is dominated by chemists and mathematicians.

One name is given pride of place that rings down to wine lovers and surely he is the only person involved in the world of wine to be honoured by a 1023 foot tall, 10,100 ton iron monument.

His name is Jean Antoine Claude Chaptal.

For some he is the scourge of sweet wine making, for others he is the scourge of honest wine making but for anyone who is prepared to approach every issue with an open mind, he might be described as the father of modern winemaking.

Gun Powder, Treason and Rot

In 1777, a young man named Jean Antoine Claude Chaptal was finishing his study of medicine at the University of Montpellier, he had been delivered a fresh body to dissect in the University laboratory. The man had died not many hours previously, Chaptal placed a scalpel to the head of the corpse and made a small blow. The corpse, clutched his hand, moaned and shock its head. Chaptal fled the lab and never practiced medicine despite graduating later that year.

Instead, he toyed with chemicals and according to the Journal of Chemical Education, something I thought I would never refer to in an article about wine, he wrote a tremendously badly received play about Polish politics and some dire poetry.

Recovering from the corpse incident and living in his native Languedoc he became fascinated with some of the chemistry of winemaking and distillation. A Doctorate, study in complex chemistry and movement to Paris looked like seting the course of his life.

However in a move we recommend to all entrepreneurially minded readers, he then inherited a vast fortune.

With this he bought mineral rich lands in the Languedoc and set up a huge chemical works. He also accepted the post of Professor of Chemistry in the University of Montpellier. Working night and day he developed stable gunpowder and better techniques of making gunpowder from saltpetre, as well as a dozen other vital chemicals for the industrial  revolution in France.

Most of this is now lost to us, because although he went on to become a Minister, a Count and confident of Napoleon, his discovery of the chemical process by which you could advance the movement of non fermenting grapes into wine is what he left his name upon.

Chaptalisation is the process of adding sugar in very specific quantities and at very specific temperatures to a wine must, the grapes and skins in a pulpy pre-fermented juice.

This was not investigated and developed by Chaptal to make sweet wines, rather it was a bi-product of his study of what was going on to make wine at all.

Unlike the hands off view that many wineries like to portray wine making can be a complex, a very complex and labour intensive process depending on the underlying chemistry.

He was one of the first to set out on a rational and scientific basis what was going on inside the vats and barrels of a winery. Not by guesswork or apprenticeship but by objective science.

What he and other natural scientists found was that in a very complex set of chemical reactions, yeasts, transformed the rich soup of grape pulp into wine by transforming the sugars in the grape into alcohol, with a bi-product of carbon dioxide and heat and a myriad of other smaller and even more complex reactions.

These other reactions continue over the whole winemaking process and include interaction with the chemical structure of the holding vessel such as wooden barrels, the pips, the differing parts of the grape skin and varies according to the heat and density of the materials. Density changes with temperature.

So, many winemakers are conductors of an annual symphony of a micro-bacterial version of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring. Rushing to control temperature, pressures, densities, ph levels, sugar must weights, volumes and somewhere in all this taste.

Chaptal proposed that such chemical reactions could be perfected by the rebalancing of the primary material for the transformation into alcohol. That primary material is Sugar.

In 1907, rioting, the burning down of portions of the centre of Montpellier and Narbonne and the death of half a dozen unfortunate souls during mass protests by almost a million people lead to a series of laws, banning Chaptalisation.

So, Jean Antoine Claude Chaptal entered the 20th century consciousness by being cited in a statute criminalising his technique of rectifying what would have been poor wine.

I am sure that is not why the names on the Eiffel Tower were covered but it certainly did not hurt sciences image to have Chaptal concealed on France’s most famous monument.

Sugar, Sugar

In countries where the climate consistently hampers full ripening of grapes, you are faced with a few options. The most obvious solution is to make sparkling wine, this seems to work best with less than wholly ripe wines and specifically there is even a process for adding sugar in a non-controversial way through adding a dosage, a mixture of high alcohol concentrated liquor and sugar, after the primary fermentation. The bubbles often being a result of the secondary fermentation of unused sugars releasing Carbon Dioxide into the now sealed bottle.

The second solution is to employ Chaptalisation

No one seems to talk about Champagne’s use of sugar as Chaptalisation. What we really mean by Chaptalisation is adding sugar to conventional wine.

The addition ion sparkling wine is seen as morally different because it has another purpose than to make up for the lack in the weather in any particular vintage.

Do this in Bordeaux and many parts of France and you will end up in jail. As we saw last week, in Beaujolais having unauthorised sugar in your cellar is an offence in itself as is selling sugar knowingly to a winery.

In some areas however, Chaptalisation is allowed. It is legal in Germany, it happens lawfully in the Loire and in parts of Burgundy.

It is not an easy process to get right, the sugar has to be added at the right moment in the fermentation to extend the process, if you have too much sugar the yeasts can be overwhelmed.

When done correctly however, the result is a wine with a higher alcohol level than it could have hoped for without the sugar. Sugar levels are checked in the vineyard and in the winery hourly during the harvest period so the deficit if there is going to be one is well signalled.

Here is the fundamental question. Is it wrong, to cure with science the lack that nature has supplied at any one moment.

In the southern hemisphere, in the Languedoc, in Italy and California they have another problem, the reverse, to much sugar, leading to a soupy, jam like confection. They can cure this by acidifying, adding needed acidity to cut through, calm down and bring some edge or savoury element to the wine.

In Bordeaux and amongst most organic and biodynamic wineries all of this is frowned upon and sanctioned.  Here they argue that it is about the game of what nature gives you.

And yet if it is technical, non chemical scientific intervention they do not mind, so reverse osmosis machines which can essentially suck out water from watery wine, concentrating it are not illegal, although the better wineries profess not to use them.

If we want to avoid being part of an anti-scientific then we must object to these techniques if we want to, on some other grounds than the morality of going against nature, because the whole of our civilisation is based upon this, broken legs, TB, typhoid and trapped miners have been rectified by our technical genius despite the action of nature.

Wines Of Scientific Intervention

On one level we can say that all wine is created by our intervention, but there are plenty of wines, many great wines, which offer only the most uncluttered view of what the climate, what nature and the vineyard offered.

On the other hand here are wines and regions where human ingenuity and scientific, rational intervention has produces some great tasting wines.


As we described above, Champagne is a brilliant creation of a highly interventive process of creation. The grapes are picked and fermented, then they are re-fermented after the addition of a complex addition of the dosage including sugars, a re-fermentation is encouraged in a bottle to produce and trap Carbon Dioxide, which we call bubbles. The whole process is accompanied by a cross year blending to get consistency, resulting in the Non Vintage tag being placed without any worries on the outside of the bottle. Some of the world’s most delicious wines are the result

Champagne Bollinger Special Cuvee, Non Vintage (92) around €50

Champagne Veuve Cliquot,  Non Vintage (90) around €46.99

Champagne Billecart-Salmon Brut, Non Vintage (90) around €49.99

Champagne Moet et Chandon, Brut NV (89) around €39.99

Champagne Beaumont des Crayeres, Grande Reserve NV (90) around €29


Here we have a great fortified wine which is produced by adding alcohol to fermenting wine to kill the fermentation process before it has naturally finished with a view to producing a rich, highly fortified wine with strong ripe fruit, residual sugar and of course the spirit added. It is as un-natural product as could be imagined with the Port Wine styles then being created by human intervention to either leave the wines to bleach into Tawny Ports, to leave them to age for years until they smooth out then decant them into bottles late in the process or pour them straight into bottles to age an near glacial speeds, giving one of the  world’s longest lived wines.

Late Bottled Vintage Port

Ramos Pintos, Traditional, LBV 2004 (90) around €23

Quinta do Castelinho LBV 1997 (90) around €24

Quinta do Vale Dona Maria, LBV 2002 (91) around €26.50

Taylors LBV 2001 (91) around €25


Niepoort, Senior Tawny, NV (90) around €21

Taylors 10 Year Old Tawny (91) around €29

Quinta do Castelinho, Tawny Port NV (89) around €17.99

Vin Doux Natural

Probably not strictly speaking merely a wine and definitely not natural, this has to be one of the most contentious categories in wine, yet it makes some very fine and enjoyable wine experiences.

This is a sweet or dessert wine created by the addition of alcohol, like Port, to halt the fermentation process in its tracks, thus leaving a great deal of unfermented sugar in the resulting wine. The difference between Port and this type of wine is one of timing and grapes of course. Frontignan, Beaumes de Venise, Rivesaltes, Banyuls and Maury are all regions that produce Vin Doux Natural, here the problem is too much sugar. The grapes get very ripe and so a varity of techniques were found to give them some cut, in this case alcoholic cut, not acidity. Two styles exist, with those like Beaumes de Venise opting for a clean, white or golden dessert wine with a hefty kick and high sugar, whereas Rivesaltes opt to create a sherry like baked, raisinated wine of amber colour and wonderful nutty, fruit cake like complexity.

Maison Jaboulet, AC Beaumes de Venise 2001 (88) around €29

Gabriel Meffre, Laurus, AC Beaumes de Venise 2004 (89) around €17.50

Mas Amiel AC Maury 2001 (89) around €37

Mas Amiel, 6 Years Old, AC Maury (90) around €23

Gerard Bertrand AC Banyuls (89) around €24

Natural, hardly,

Beautiful, yes.