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  • March 18, 2013
  • First as Tragedy, then as Farce?: A Short Story about Natural Wine

  • by Kevin Goldberg

ludwig_gall“Natural wine” continues to have a peculiar existence. While wine has historically been at the forefront of innovation in the realm of food and drink, it seems now as if we wine lovers are playing catch-up to the robust advances made by all kinds of “organic” (“bio” in German) and “natural” food purveyors and devotees. Part of the lag is due to our inability to put forward a singular definition of natural wine, or, in fact, to agree whether or not the concept needs defining at all. International wine bodies have similarly failed to clear fresh trails, preferring instead the safer path of inaction. Although the wine trade no longer serves as the pacesetter in gastronomic trends, its critics, journalists, and bloggers continue to stake positions, often with great emotion, defending, denouncing, and deconstructing natural wine.

In spite of its problematic nature, the concept is not without merits. Natural wine, its critics notwithstanding, appears to most of us as politically progressive, environmentally friendly, and seemingly more authentic than mass-produced, industrial brands. Among its great advantages is its alleged proximity to terroir. By consuming natural wine, we believe—no matter the extent of objective justification—that we are circumventing the intrusive hand of man and drinking directly from the Earth, reveling in its unfiltered riches. While there is little consensus among growers, merchants, critics, and consumers about what exactly “natural” means or is, there is no denying its magnetic appeal; we all desire, somehow, that our wines be closer to nature.

In Germany, the natural wine movement is as fractured as anywhere else (of course, using the term “movement” implies more coherence than there actually is), and definitions there remain as elusive as they are here, in the United States. Somewhat surprisingly—given the impotence at present—the movement’s history in Germany is extraordinarily long, reaching at least as far back as the 1840s. Still more astonishing, 19th-century debates about natural wine were even more vexing than they are today! In fact, I would argue that the so-called Kunstweinfrage, or artificial wine question of the late-19th century, pitting proponents of Naturwein, or natural wine, against its alleged defilers, was the single most-explosive dispute in the German trade before the First World War. Similar debates in France, Italy, or Spain, all occurring decades later, hardly approached the intensity and obstinacy which pitted growers and merchants in the Bavarian Pfalz against their peers along the Prussian Mosel, and then, after unification of the Second Reich in 1871, Germans against Germans. It should be noted that both the Pfalz and the Mosel were only recently annexed territories, neither of which had a particularly loyal attachment to Bavaria or Prussia, respectively. Making complete sense of this dispute requires that far more attention be paid to these nuances of region, religion, occupation, and class than what we can achieve here, though a brief sketch of the turbulent Mosel trade in the 1840s–1870s, particularly the part played by Ludwig Gall, reveals some of the force of this fascinating moment.

Ludwig Gall

In spite of his being dubbed “the first German Socialist,” a pioneer in “theoretical interventionism,” and an “unknown early Keynesian,” Ludwig Gall’s (1791–1863) greatest influence might have been in the area of winemaking. As an eyewitness to the chasms created when unfettered markets struck the European countryside, Gall, a native of the German Duchy of Jülich, embarked on a career dedicated to eradicating inequalities left in the wake of industrialization, economic modernization, and political reaction. Following a series of bureaucratic positions and failed attempts at establishing utopian settlements, including a short-lived stay in Pennsylvania, Gall jumped headfirst into the political strife erupting across the continent in the wake of harvest failures and unrest in 1848. Settling down once and for all in the Rhineland following another forced exile, this time from Hungary (where he no doubt learned much about winegrowing), the social-reformer Gall was moved to improve the lot of Mosel winegrowers through technological innovation, that most powerful tool of the mid-19th century utopian.

Though inconceivable today, Mosel winegrowing was collapsing in the difficult 1840s, wracked by consecutive poor harvests, increased competition because of the expansion of the Prussian Customs’ Union in the 1830s (which took away the Mosel’s monopoly in the North-German region), and the enduring problem of the stinging acidity of Mosel wine in under-ripe vintages. Gall believed that rational science provided the blueprints to correct the problem of poor harvests and high acidity: He was convinced that if the thriving of vines depended upon the heavens, then harvest and fermentation were squarely in the hands of man. Nature’s deficiency, manifested in sour Mosel wine, could, in a sense, be cured by human intervention. Building on existing vinicultural knowledge, including the work of Frenchman Jean-Antoine Chaptal, Gall improved, and, more importantly popularized, a process in which a calculated sugar and water solution would be added to the grape must in order to reduce excessive acidity. Far removed from pernicious “improvement” techniques which endangered the lives of consumers, Gall’s technique used nothing beyond that which was already provided by nature in the grape; sugar and water.

The success of Gallisierung, or Gallization, as the process would soon be known, was instant. By the mid-1850s, praise for Gall rang up and down the Mosel and Rhine rivers. Reporting on the latest agricultural advances at the 1853 Bonn Country Fair, the Cologne Times felt certain that the future of winegrowing “belonged to Gall.” Dr. Kaufmann, Professor of Economics at the University of Bonn, lauded Gall as a “representative of truth, science, and progress.” Other supporters of Gall spoke of him in almost superhuman terms: “Gall is able to accomplish what nature cannot. If the sun was not warm enough to create a balanced wine, Gall can still bring the grape’s main components—sugar, acid, and water—into proper form.”

Gall’s methods circulated throughout the winegrowing world—even in North America—where ruined Rhinelanders settled by the tens of thousands. The 1860 U.S. Report of the Commissioner of Patents for Agriculture contained a translated excerpt from Gall’s Practical Instructions, including the crucial sections on de-acidification. Agoston Haraszthy, a flamboyant and fascinating Hungarian immigrant to the United States, later dubbed the “father of American wine,” also translated Gall’s work and included an extended analysis in his 1862 Grape Culture, Wines, and Wine Making. The president of The Mississippi Valley Grape Growers’ Association (MVGGA) declared that he recognized in Gall’s method “an attempt to make the best possible use of and improve the gifts of nature, supply wants, remedy deficiencies, and attain the highest perfection under the circumstances.” It was clear to the Board of the MVGGA that “there is not the least prospect that gallizing and chaptalizing will ever be abandoned.”

But Gall’s success was not met with universal acclaim. Many critics blasted Gallisierung as artificial, unwholesome, and unnatural. A veritable firestorm was soon unleashed against Gall and his method, eventually necessitating the intervention of the German legislature. For decades, the artificial wine question towered over all other viticultural problems, including phylloxera, nearly monopolizing headlines in the German wine press. One influential Central European wine-trade publication, Die Weinlaube, would claim in the 1870s that “no subject of modern enology has been given to such divergences of opinions and points of view among lay drinkers and wine experts as the question of improving the taste of wine through Gall’s method.”

However, objections to Gall’s method were hardly of a unified voice, offering instead a cacophony of protestations rather than a coherent narrative. Some of the loudest objections to Gallisierung came from the Association of Wine and Fruit Producers, whose annual congresses usually erupted into vocal tirades against the advances of Gall’s method. Sebastian Englerth (1804–1880), a winegrower and merchant in Franken, was one of the fiercest critics of the intrusion of technology into the winemaking process. According to Englerth, “There are already winemaking factories which seek to artificially improve great quantities of wine, thereby creating a bridge between improvement and falsification, thus bringing the original idea of rational-artificial improvement into the realm of affectation, cover-ups, and deceit.” Another critic, Privy Counselor Mangold of Oehringen in Württemberg chastised would-be wine defilers by challenging their sanctity and faith: “We must trust in our all-mighty God, who in his great inimitable kitchen of nature, through the powerful effects of the earth and of the alternation of rain with sun, makes wines each year which may not always be equally good, but nevertheless always have their own unique characteristics.”

Suspicions of Gallisierung soon turned into threats. Franz Peter von Buhl (1809–1862), an estate owner in the Pfalz, demanded that Gall’s method attract the eye of the government, and even initiated legislation that sought to criminalize certain winemaking technologies if undisclosed by grower or merchant. The anti-Gall camp was able to reach vintners through gatherings, newspaper articles, and political pamphlets. In 1854, an anonymous member of the Agricultural Association of Rhenish-Prussia published yet another defamatory piece. Aside from causing massive headaches, Gall’s wine was said to lack the true bouquet and taste of natural wine. The piece charged that “artificial wine is neither as pleasurable nor as healthy as natural wine, and cannot be considered a means against sickness.” It has been proven, the piece continued, that wine is not just a product of fermentation, but of the vegetation process which is already manifest in the unfermented grape must. A manipulated fermentation thus leads to an unnatural bouquet and taste. Natural wine and non-natural wine (Kunstwein) were two separate categories of drink, the former being the true and inimitable wine. Producers and merchants were warned not to dabble with Gall’s idea lest they open themselves to communal scorn and possible fines and imprisonment.

Opponents of Gallisierung did manage to organize themselves around a few common tropes to discredit producers of gallisiert wine, but they still lacked the ability to challenge these allegedly artificial winemakers in any serious way. One key reason for their failure was the powerlessness of south-German (non-Prussian) winegrowers and merchants in influencing Prussian politics in any significant way. Following German unification in 1871, however, natural-wine advocates were given a fairer opportunity to influence new national laws and policies. Such an opportunity first presented itself at the 1874 Congress of southwest German Wine and Fruit Producers (Wein- und Obstproducenten des südwestlichen Deutschlands) held in Trier on the Mosel. The theme of the three-day event was the encroachment of Gallisierung and other types of “artificial” improvements, and their detrimental effect on production and consumption. The moment would prove to be a pivotal turning point in the development of a modern taste discourse, catapulting the concept of “natural wine” into the national spotlight.

The over 100 attendees in Trier included estate owners, merchants, chemists, lawyers, and bureaucrats. Their primary goal was strategizing a platform for the discrediting of various types of cellar manipulations, including de-acidification, while trumpeting the use of traditional vinicultural practices as natural. The vehicle created to accomplish these tasks was the German Vintners’ Association (Deutscher Winzer-Verein), soon renamed the German Winegrowing Association (Deutscher Weinbauverein). The Association’s purpose, as articulated in its founding statutes, was the promotion of the production and consumption of natural wine. With 800 members by 1876, the Association included many families still recognizable on the Mosel (Thanisch, Prüm, Bergweiler, and Kerpen), all who feared the complete discrediting of the Mosel through its entangled reputation with Gall.

A Natural Correlation?

The political significance behind the term Gallisierung fell away as Gall himself was quickly forgotten after the turn-of-the-century. The ersatz term, Nassverbesserung, or “improvement with water,” though more accurate in description, lacked the concomitant historical tension. If Ludwig Gall’s ambitions were part and parcel of his wide-ranging goal of reducing vintner poverty while improving, rationally, the quality of Mosel wine, then we might with good reason be suspicious of the aspirations of those who would object. While oversimplified, there is every reason to believe that the origins of natural wine had less to do with wine, per se, and more to do with preserving the status quo in the trade. Mapping this somewhat crude reductionism onto the present, while requiring a good deal more prudence, is enlightening in at least one important way. While we as consumers might revel in the good-natured sparring over minutia in our particular definitions of “natural,” we all should recognize at least one important point: The very concept of “natural” is itself a man-made invention, often arising during times of crisis or great change.

The battle over natural and artificial, beginning with the many reactions to Gall’s method, would rage intensely for at least another three decades, with its embers—as we know from today’s reiteration—never really extinguished, completely. Daniel Decker’s Im Zeichen des Traubenadlers (von Zabern, 2010) brilliantly narrates the history of the 20th-century natural wine movement through the consolidation of regionally divided auction consortiums. The dogmatism touched upon here which divided the debate in the 19th century was firmly rooted in class antagonisms, occupational divides, and even political allegiances, a fact which would endure at least through the end of the Second World War. While a kind of dogmatism still pervades the discussion today, and certainly the passion with which people align themselves with particular winegrowing and winemaking processes might be as strong as ever, this is, I think, less a sign of political dragooning and regional mercantilism, and more an attempt to connect winegrowing with forward-thinking lifestyles. There may be nothing natural about that either, however. ♦

Image: Ludwig Gall sketched by an unknown artist for an illustrated calendar (1860).

Kevin D. Goldberg is an instructor of History at Kennesaw State University. From 2011–2013, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University. He is currently working on a book, The Fermentation of Modern Taste: German Wine from Napoleon to the Great War.

  • Andrew Bair says:

    Hi Kevin –

    Thank you for the great article – it’s amazing how so little has changed, in some ways, since the 1800s. This is definitely a timely topic given the debate over “natural” wines that has developed over the past few years. As one who has enjoyed many of the current wave of “natural” wines, you do raise some great points regarding the rhetoric behind the “natural” movements and the related discourse in both the 19th and the 21st centuries. Some of our current importers have unknowingly taken their lead from Ludwig Gall and have made the promotion of “natural” wines by small, traditionalist growers into a crucial part of their reaction against manufactured and “Parkerised” wines. Certainly, some of this stems from the sociopolitical clashes between small and large businesses, and individuality and conformity, that are currently testing much of the West. Environmentalism, on the other hand, is likely a larger factor in the equation than it was in Gall’s day.

    It is worth noting, however, that some of the best-known and most highly regarded “natural” wines of today have ceased to be products by the masses, for the masses. For example, a bottle of Frank Cornelissen’s Magma sells for well over $100, and Gravner’s wines are not exactly cheap, either. Peter-Jakob Kuhn of the Rheingau is probably the best-know “natural” winemaker from Germany, and his top bottling, Schlehdorn, is also quite expensive; probably not what an early socialist like Herr Gall had in mind.

    Last year, I had the chance to try one of Kuhn’s wines (a 2007 Mittelheim St. Nikolaus Riesling Trocken Drei Trauben), and was quite impressed. Your impressions will likely depend on what you think about the likes of Gravner and Radikon.

    At any rate, I am enjoying your contributions to Lars’ site, and am definitely interested in buying your book when it is completed and published.

    • Andrew, I’ll let Kevin answer your reply, although Gall wasn’t on the side of “natural wines.” On the contrary, he just wanted to help small growers with poor vintages of high-acid, under-ripe grapes, but was, and still is, accused of having ruined the Mosel’s reputation with his new technique in the ensuing decades. Today, many consumers in Germany turn their nose up at Mosel wine for much of the same reason. The wines are considered kitsch and overly sweet. Of course, the latter was a result of the “sweet wave” in the 1960s and 1970s.

      I’ve heard mixed opinions about Peter Jakob Kühn’s wines and approach.

  • Kevin Goldberg says:

    Thanks very much for your comment and kind words, Andrew. As you point out, there are some fascinating parallels between the 1800s and the present, not least of which is the way that “natural” carries some sort of reactionary energy, whether political, environmental, viticultural, etc. You also touched upon one of the great ironies of Gall and the early natural wine movement. While the branding of wine as “natural” was spread through criticism of Gall and his method, the very process which Gall popularized–de-acidification–was entirely natural in the sense that it did not permit the use of non-grape substances. There were certainly quibbles about the source of sugar (grape vs. cane vs. beet, for example), but the method diverged from other forms of improvement by its very naturalness. Ultimately, what may have been “unnatural” about Gallization was the stretching of total liquid volume by way of the sugar-water solution. It is interesting that opponents of this identified and employed “natural” as a way to articulate the issue. Getting somewhat off-track, I think this is tied into the legacy of German Romanticism vis-a-vis enlightened rationality.

    More importantly, I have not had a Kuhn wine in years, though I am eager to do so. Has the estate been “bio” for long? I’ve been trying to gauge, for the case of Germany, whether or not “bio” is still a movement in the sense that it operates against the grain of broader (and more industrial, perhaps?) winegrowing and winemaking strategies, or if the goal posts have been moved in the sense that there has been a wider industry-wide paradigm-styled shift towards processes more in line with organic and natural producers. I’m curious as to whether Andrew, Lars, or others with a keen eye on the trade in Germany can speak to this.

    • Thanks for your follow-up, Kevin.

      As for Peter Jakob Kühn, I don’t know how long the family has worked their vineyards biodynamically. Perhaps a reader can answer your question. Matthias Knebel did a stint at the estate during his studies at Geisenheim, and Clemens Busch knows Kühn as well.

      In Germany, some of what is sold as “Bio-Wein,” especially in most organic grocery stores, is geared towards a certain clientele and is not maybe industrial, but the winemaker might have used selected yeasts and other agents, or makes just average wines at best. It’s different from the now-popular natural wine movement (low sulfur, ambient yeasts) that rose up in Beaujolais and at certain wine bars in Paris and then spread to NYC and other places several years ago. I do, however, sense that more quality-oriented German growers are moving towards organic or even biodynamic viticulture. Others are working naturnah, or “close to nature,” even though some growers were always this way, but never purposely marketed themselves as such.

      In France, for example, Château de Beaucastel and Domaine Tempier have been farming organically for many decades, but never talked about their production in terms of “natural wines.” It wasn’t hip then. Nonetheless, I love a lot of the wines that are termed “natural,” especially coming from top producers in regions such as the Jura, Beaujolais, or the Loire Valley.

      On the Mosel, it’s much more difficult to work organically on the steep slate slopes, especially if a grower has small plots spread out in several different areas. In most vineyards of Rheinhessen or the Pfalz, it’s less burdensome. (See Thorsten Melsheimer’s Organic Spraying in the Mosel Valley” for more details.)

      • Andrew Bair says:

        Lars –

        Just to add a bit more to what David said about Peter Jacob Kühn: I did have a 2000 Lenchen Kabinett from him a few years ago, and it was a pretty typical Riesling from the central Rheingau. Certainly a solid wine from a below average year, but without any hint of Kühn’s subsequent “conversion”, to use David’s well-chosen term.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Thanks for the fascinating article, Kevin, on which (you’ll doubtless be glad to know ;- ) time precludes my commenting in any detail.

    While there’s an increasingly flourishing “bio” movement among German growers, I’m not sure we can speak of ANY “natural wine” movement in the sense that we have it among French growers or US critics and restaurateurs. For one thing, the emphasis on low sulfur that characterizes today’s self-style natural wine partisans is largely absent in Germany and unsulfured wine extremely rare. For another, the very term “bio” does double-duty for organic as well as biodynamic viticulture and there is no other term (whereas partisans elsewhere would say that organic viticulture is a necessary but INsufficient condition for a grower’s wines being “natural”).

    Kühn, incidentally, has been bio-dynamically-farmed since 2004 and Demeter-certified since 2009. I have written about his “conversion” (not too strong a word in this instance) and discussed it with him in considerable depth. The wines are better than ever but also dramatically different from what they were a decade and more ago, one major reason being that part of Kühn’s conception of a wine as nature wants it is one that has been allowed to undergo malo-lactic fermentation (though he still also crafts superb residually sweet wines that don’t).

    I still find the huge furor over Gallizierung – even allowing for the underlying socio-psychological and economic factors to which you alluded (and which dominate most of your more detailed and comprehensive work on late 19th and early 20th century German wine)- something of a tempest in a teapot (oder Weinkelch ;- ) inasmuch as chaptalization preceded it but while subject to long-lingering prejudice in Germany was never to my knowledge the cause of furor in any European growing region; and the insight that adding water will dilute acidity seems so obvious that it’s hard to believe it really was never done before Gall wrote to recommend it.

    Is there something in Gall’s writings and process that I am missing (pressed as I am and thus never having read the primary texts)? I mean, how much could you even find to write about other than perhaps to propose certain ratios of water to acid, must weight, or volume of must? (Although, unless Gall had experience as a vintner, how would he know what these were; anyway, the optimum amount of water would surely – if one wanted to be conscientious – depend on imponderable factors including types of acid present; dry extract; pH; berry size, skin thickness and other gene-, terroir-, weather- and climate-influenced factors.)

    Perhaps what was (deemed) pernicious was the DEGREE to which Gall thought watering useful, whether the frequency with which it was assumed that a must would benefit, or the large or indiscriminate AMOUNT of water routinely added? (Chaptalization, too, is pernicious if it becomes an excuse for letting one’s grapes ripen fully or if alcohol is boosted by too great a degree.)

    As I have mentioned to you before, many a revered German grower today has been heard by me to opine that occasionally a bit of water would be a more reliable way of de-acidifying that those that are legally permitted. (I wrote a German wine lover’s primer to de-acidifaction as part of a report last year on Germany’s 2010 Rieslings, so shall here neither shill further for that piece of writing nor go into further detail, except to note that legal modern methods only “double salt” de-acidification lowers malic as well as tartaric, and it is a tricky not always reliable procedure, unlike adding water ;- ) What’s more, if one imaginatively transports oneself back in the only recently ended (or at least, interrupted) era when there were frequent vintages in which despite low yields and responsible viticulture German Riesling grapes were still HARD (not to mention un-ripe) when the first frosts and snow arrived, it’s not difficult to appreciate why addition of water as well as sugar was considered a necessary expedient.

    In case friends of natural wine are monitoring this comment, please be advised that I am not – all things taken together – advocating addition of water nor disrespecting those who eschew it on principle. (And today the issue of watering is really moot in most of the world as a means of de-acidification; it’s as a means of lowering ALCOHOL that it’s practiced today in most parts of the world.) I’m merely insisting that one appreciate the reasons why it has sometimes been favored – many of which are far from obviously pernicious or greedy – and that if one wants to make a big deal of it, the onus is on the accuser to explain on what principles it should be ruled out and what makes it so (allegedly) pernicious – whether on account of taste, (im)morality, ontology, theology or some other sort of consideration?

  • Kevin Goldberg says:

    Thanks for your “brief” comments, David. They are extremely insightful as always, and your position on de-acidification, from what I can tell, seems a rather courageous one.

    Yes, there is so much more involved with Gall and natural wine beyond viti- and viniculture. While de-acidification and chaptalization were older “technologies,” Gall’s yeoman work was in their consolidation and popularizing. The moment surrounding the 1848 Revolutions is paramount here. In the wake of 1848, a class and occupational consciousness had come to the fore. This intersected with the rise of political parties, mass pamphleteering, and organizing. At about the same time, viticulture–like all agricultures–had shifted from the realm of the godly and the spiritual to the arenas of science, technology, and bureaucracy. Ultimately, natural-wine advocates were responding to all of these “man-made” changes… Gall had simply been made into the poster child of these “threats.” I don’t think that winemaking and the way we talk about it exists in a vacuum. Today, the context may largely be environmentalism. In the mid-nineteenth century, the context was social upheaval, democratization, and the rise of science. There’s a pun to be made here about the moment being more “ripe” than the grapes…

  • Bert Celce, whom I met several years ago in Paris at a Mosel Wine Merchant tasting event, just posted a long article on Ludwig Gall on his excellent blog at wineterroirs.com. To read his piece, click here.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Let me state up front that I have delighted in reading many of Celce’s on-line articles and have found him enormously insightful in matters vinous … just not on this occasion!

    Once again, though, we have an article the doesn’t so much sensationalize Gall’s approach – what is there really to sensationalize about something so simple? – but instead takes it for granted that somehow what he advocated was scandalous and inherently detrimental to quality. Yet Nassverbesserung was permitted until the late 20th century and chaptalization has never been an issue. What’s more, as I have pointed out after a number of top-notch growers including Helmut Dönnoff raised this issue with me in the context of 2010, even today this might be a more successful corrective than the versions of de-acidification many growers have practiced since the 1970s. To be sure, well-executed “double-salt” de-acidification that reduces both malic and tartaric acids is far and away the best approach, but this technique was unknown before the late 1980s or early ’90s, and as experiences in 2010 demonstrated, it is not easy to execute, requiring skill, intuition and luck to stir-in the relevant agents at the optimal rate to achieve results. (Most top-notch German Riesling estates had not de-acidified for well more than a decade and many not since 1981, so double-salt de-acidification was at most something once touched-on in their course of study.)

    The real problems with adding water or sugar are doing-so excessively. And to be sure, if you have utterly unripe material – which happened often with German Riesling prior to 1988 even at diligent, quality-conscious estates – you are not going to be able to render a particularly good wine. The decent exceptions from 1980, 1978, or 1977 are just that, exceptions and merely decent; and a look at cellar books back through the 20th century shows that these were noting compared with some of the misfortunes visited on classic Riesling vineyards at other times. If you have green, hard grapes still in November – as sometimes happened – then it’s understandable that you would consider yourself lucky that adding sugar and water would guarantee fermentation and generate some semblance of wine.

    If one wants to talk about the crusade for quality, it is insistence on minimal standards of ripeness (if only crudely approximated by sugar at harvest) and of yields that matter. All of the horror stories Celce mentions including those associated with Hussmann and his era stem from under-ripeness and over-cropping, not from the mere fact that water and sugar were added to musts.

    And what, pray tell does any of this have to do with technology? It’s hard for me to think of the simple addition of water or sugar as progress of a technological sort. Kevin Goldberg suggests that it is perfectly useful to refer to as technological the sort of innovation that Gall introduced, namely a “recipe” for adding water and sugar in proportions alleged to make the best out of under-ripe, excessively-acidic wine grapes, which led to the spread of certain innovative cellar practices. Fair enough, insofar as the word “technology” is sematically flexible. But what Gall offered hardly strikes me as “technology” in the sense that this term is widely (often derrogatively) employed in current writing about wine, including by Celce when he refers to modern day “pushers of scientifically-improved wines.”

    There was plenty of both chemical and mechanical technology entering the main stream of wine production in the second half of the 19th century – witness alone all of the devices and preparations developed in futile efforts to combat phylloxera, or the arguably more felicitous developments of sterile filtration and motorized presses. I don’t perceive boosting the levels of water and sugar in must as rising to a remotely similar level of sophistication. But more importantly, Gall wasn’t part of an industry trying to sell special additives, chemical treatments or machinery, so implicating him as a forerunner for today’s many allegedly “manipulative,” “industrial” or “technological” bogeymen strikes me as at the very least an enormous conceptual stretch.

    When Celce writes that:

    Ludwig Gall’s correction method became mainstream in Germany at large and known under the German words Anreicherung or Verbesserung (correction & bettering techniques). This sugar/water addition method can be held responsible (from what I understand) for the sugary reputation of German wines worldwide.

    he seems to imagine that Germany was in respect to chaptalization an exception, whereas adding sugar was until very recently commonplace in most of France and is still widely-practiced including by some of this country’s foremost growers. (Watering is still commonplace too, but for a completely different reason and in regions were sugar levels become excessive.) What’s more, he falls into the same confusion (which I simply cannot comprehend) that permeates the many popular post-WWII scare-mongering articles in Der Spiegel and elsewhere in the German press, namely conflating sugaring of must and sweetening of wine. There was certainly a period when sweetening wines was popular in Germany and – as was, and still is, arresting fermentation – but that was long after Gall’s time! What’s more, sweetening remains entirely legal, whether it involves adding un-fermented or par-fermented must or for that matter (as happens routinely even at top-notch estates today) a bit of TBA, BA or Eiswein that the grower deems too tiny or otherwise unsuited to bottling on its own. But what has this got to do with the function of chaptalization?! I supposed one could say that it does have one thing in common with watering, namely that you might add Süssreserve to your Riesling – or, for that matter, arrest its fermentation – in part as a way of dealing with high acidity. But this analogy represents another real stretch, nor can I imagine why manipulating residual sugar to balance acidity should be viewed as a horror!

    • Bert Celce says:

      Hi David,

      Thank you for detailing your opinion about my writing on Gall’s episode.

      First, thank you to Kevin for having written this article, which is a deep resource on something we’re alas not taught about here in France (the detailed episodes around winemaking practices in Germany or generally outside France). Like Kevin pointed to in his comment (and I thought about it before reading this last comment), it is not a question of us-modern-people looking harshly on 19th vintners for something that is supposed to be widely accepted then: the opposition back then was strong and durable when he made his recipe known, proving that even then it was far to be considered acceptable and natural to correct a wine this way.

      The question if it was allowed or not is secondary, same to say if it is better or worse than de-acidifying, winegrowers with an ethic don’t look at the allowed/not-allowed list of practices to see if they can correct their wine, and I guess that this was the case even then for a proportion of quality-conscious producers.

      Speaking of my overuse of the word technolgy, I use it in a broad sense of course, water not being a typical technolgical tool, but people understand what I mean, I mean corrections by additions or intrusive manipulation of the juice/wine.

      Lastly, I didn’t mean that France was free of blame, people know chaptalizatin has been widely used there, especially from the time industrial production of sugar began to yield cheap sugar, something decisive because before that the farmers couldn’t afford to use sugar, this was far too expensive a treat for the juice.

      Kevin writes at the end of his last comment that sweetening was not done only through Gall’s method, but also through stopping the fermentation (which then I guess would mean heavy SO2 addings) or through adding of TBA, BA or Eisswein which in my mind also means not only sugar not present in the initial wine but lots of SO2 to prevent this to referment. Not a better option I think. I wouldn’t say that “manipulating residual sugar to balance acidity is an horror” for me, but it is a disservice to the original wine or it is the indirect aknowledgement that the raw material was not fit to make wine in the first place.

      When consumers have been encouraged broadly and for years to get sweetened wines it is difficult to make them appreciate wines that are dry and naturally acidic. I was recounted he same story in Japan (see my Shinkame brewery story) from Yoshimasa Ogawahara (the brewery owner) who told me that after years of having been used to drink artificially-sweetened sake (from, say, 1943 to 1985) the Japanese were having difficulty to readapt to uncorrected dry sake (the first sake brewery having restarted the production of real sake being Shinkame).

  • Kevin Goldberg says:

    What struck me most about Celce’s article, which I enjoyed, is that somebody with a viti-historical knowledge as deep as his was unaware of Gall. This is certainly not a criticism of Celce but rather an indication of the extent to which Gall and his processes have been willfully written out of wine history. David, I don’t think Celce is sensationalizing Gall’s methods. Rather, the opponents of Gall in the 19th century did the sensationalizing. As I tried to demonstrate in my article here (as well as in a longer-format journal article), Gallisierung morphed into a socio-economic issue far larger than mere viniculture. Legions of opponents derided Gall’s methods as detrimental to wine, the drinkers’ health, and even to some abstract notion of what it meant to be German.

    It is important to consider, as Celce recognizes, that debates about Gallisierung/Natural wine occurred earlier in Germany than they did in France. In France, these processes were simply not controversial…though they were certainly employed. One of the key differences is that Gall and his techniques (and his alleged politics) were routinely scandalized in Germany. Gall is only half the story. Natural wine, in fact, emerges not from Gall but from these scandalizing reactions.

    Gallisierung is most certainly a kind of technology, just like refrigeration and indoor plumbing. They are so far removed from our contemporary employment of the term in its largely digital sense that we can easily lose sight of the term’s far broader historical reality. Of course, Gall’s methods were in fact around before he popularized them. I would also argue that the very act of streamlining and distributing information in new, innovative ways is a kind of technological advancement (in this case, how societies spread knowledge).

    • Bert Celce says:

      Kevin,

      Thank you again for your article, it opened my eyes as said before about this German episode. I was also amused to learn about the other sides of Gall’s personality, either these extremist views that were possibly imported from France where revolutionary ideas were spreading through the “gazettes” (newspapers), or his American problems, which were so un-revolutionary in nature…

      Actually, regarding winemaking practices I’m pretty libertarian, what I’d just like is that when winemakers correct a wine, ad this or that including sugar, they tell it to their consumers openly. If adding sugar, water or another correction additive is no problem, why not tell it ? For my part, there are enough no-additives wines around to play with, and it’s not a question of ideology, just that this is so much pleasure to drink them. I don’t need an explanation for why these wines go down so easily, I’m content with experiencing it.

  • By chance, I just received the revised third edition of Frank Schoonmaker’s Wines of Germany (Hastings House, 1969), and he includes some endnotes, which the first edition didn’t have inside. In the first note, he says:

    Over the past decade, especially since the uneven and rather difficult 1957 vintage, there has been a steady trend in Germany in favor of a less rigid and more practical attitude toward the sugaring or chaptalization of lesser wines. This has partly been due to an effort to bring the German and French wine laws into closer accord—in the interest, hopefully, of a future Common Market. Since almost all Burgundies are chaptalized, even in great years, and most Bordeaux in secondary vintages like 1956, 1960, 1963 and 1965 (without bearing any indication of this fact on the label), many of the best German producers have come to feel that they, too, might legitimately follow a somewhat similar procedure—sugar and ferment and age and bottle their own lesser wines, especially in poorer years. In the past, instead, they had sold either the grapes or the new-made wine to shippers, for handling and blending.

    For example, that’s why Koehler-Ruprecht or Falkentein still keep to the 1971 Prädikat system, as they still can designate that their wines, including the dry and off-dry ones, are unsugared, or “natural.” The Webers at Falkenstein sell lesser casks to the co-op. The VDP’s new classification system doesn’t differentiate between a chaptalized or unchaptalized dry wine anymore. A high-end Grosses Gewächs can be sugared. In addition, the VDP discourages its members from labeling a wine as Kabinett, unless it has between 18 and 60 grams of sugar per liter. If it ferments below 18 grams and comes from a VDP-Grosse Lage, the light and less-esteemed dry or off-dry wines are declassified into either an Orts- or Gutswein. More non-VDP members are following this system now. This, however, goes against the notion of terroir and the tradition of Naturwein, especially in the Mosel region. I am neither against chaptalization nor an advocate of the 1971 Prädikat system, but why keep Kabinett or Spätlese only for residually sweet wines? (The Prädikat system was framed around the EC laws of potential alcoholic strength, not sweetness. Moreover, the Prädikats didn’t always indicate a sweet wine pre-1971 Wine Law.) But how can a grower now be site-specific and indicate ripeness (in particular, lightness) for his or her dry-tasting wines, which have lower must weights, without using some silly fantasy name—often with the word slate, or “Schiefer,” in it—or downgrading the wine to a more generic location? The old use of village names only made sense when the inferior flat vineyards on the banks of the Mosel River didn’t exist. Back in the 19th century, a Piesporter or Erdener was from the slate slopes, not the plain, which had other crops, orchards, and cattle.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Thanks much for your further clarifications, Kevin; and thanks Bert for your gracious response to my perhaps too breathless critique.
    There are a few things to which I think it worth calling further attention.

    1.
    Since Kevin’s historical approach emphasizes seeing the “natural wine” issue in 19th Century Germany in the context of class consciousness and “democratization” it should be emphasized that I learned about the sort of disastrous Riesling vintages to which I alluded – when, for example, the berries were still green and hard in November – from pursuing the records of some of the top estates farming the best sites. Special thanks, for example, are due Heidi Kegel for her generous permission to page through the extremely detailed but concise and clear records of her ancestors at the von Othegraven estate. And if terrible situations arose every dozen or so years in the great Kanzemer Altenberg, imagine how much worse things were for growers in lesser sites (even leaving aside issues of yield or plant genetics).

    But even though there was doubtless significant disparity according to site and vititcultural practices, the record shows that the sort of conditions for which aggressive sugaring and watering were considered the only conceivable remedy arose at the prestigious estates of wine nobility, not just among smaller and in every sense poorer landholders. This also addresses – and, I believe, falsifies – Bert’s conjecture that quality-conscious growers over the last century or so in Germany probably didn’t consider “correcting” their wines. At the very least, they chaptalized: I don’t think any Northern European growers of fine wine existed before the emergence of the Naturwein movement in Germany who refused on principle to bottle any wine from chaptalized must, and even the aforementioned Naturwein growers of Riesling in early 20th century Germany chaptalized in some years; they simply didn’t put those wines for sale in the same way or venues as they did their “natural” wines. It’s only in the late 20th century that weather, technique, and qualitative expectations have combined to create a situation in which many Northern European growers find that they are able to survive economically while eschewing chaptalization entirely and on principle – or have simply not chaptalized for decades even though they would not on principle rule-out so-doing. (The first grower in Burgundy whom I am aware of having taken such a position was Hubert de Montille, beginning in the 1960s, and it was so unusual that he was widely known precisely for having taken it.)

    2.
    I want to clarify what I think are some confusions in Bert’s reply. Arresting fermentation does not, as he imagines, necessarily “mean heavy SO2 addi[tions].” Sulfur is usually a part of the process, but it was only through the advent of sterile filtration in the first two decades of the 20th century that safely-stable residually sweet Riesling could be rendered via interrupted fermentation, and this process also meant that sulfur did not have to play the sole role in preventing re-fermentation. The advent of refrigeration on a wide scale make possible another effective means of arresting fermentation (“Kühlkellertechnik” as it was still referred to when I started studying Riesling in the 1980s). Additionally, the development of pressure tanks – which, for example, were a standard feature of the Maximin Grünhaus cellar for decades – offered another avenue for achieving this.

    Bert writes that: “adding of TBA, BA or Eiswein … in my mind also means not only sugar not present in the initial wine but lots of SO2 to prevent this to re-ferment. Not a better option I think.” It is extremely difficult to render stable nobly sweet wines of high residual sugar without significant use of SO2. But to suggest that adding a wine of this sort to another is bad on account of the SO2 introduced presupposes almost wholesale condemnation of naturally sweet wine. Does Bert really think it “unnatural” and a bad idea to render T.B.A., B.A. or Eiswein, seeing that this typically demands the use of SO2? I sincerely hope not!

    As for the portion of Bert’s critique directed at “sugar not present in the initial wine” I think he needs to take a somewhat broader view of this. Does he consider it somehow inherently illegitimate to ever blend two or more batches of wine even if they came from grapes harvested off of the same vineyard at the same time? Again, I certainly hope not. But any blending means adding something to a wine – including whatever amount, large or small, of residual sugar might be introduced – that it did not “initially” contain. And in practice very often in the case of blending nobly sweet Riesling into a drier wine, one is actually returning that portion of one and the same parcel’s crop that was picked-out separately and subjected to separate vinification. I personally find refreshing and fascinating the interest of so many German growers today in reviving block picking. But I can’t imagine condemning anybody who picks and vinifies selectively but then decides that the results will taste best if re-united in bottle.

    3.
    Lars, thanks for calling my attention to the Schoonmaker quote. (As I mentioned to you, I need to read the early editions of that classic.) I do not think it will be going out on a limb – even though it’s the late, undeniably great Schoonmaker we’re talking about – to say that he misleads his readers, or was perhaps himself misled, when he wrote those words.
    He suggests that only in the 1950s

    “[have] many of the best German producers … come to feel that they, too [i.e. like the French], might legitimately follow a somewhat similar procedure—sugar and ferment and age and bottle their own lesser wines, especially in poorer years. In the past, instead, they had sold either the grapes or the new-made wine to shippers, for handling and blending.”

    First off, he can only have been referring here to the elite of the then Naturweinversteigerer; and not having indicated that explicitly is to court confusion, or perhaps suggests that he himself was unaware how limited were the number of growers who during the mid-20th century considered it “illegitimate” to bottle under their own labels wines that had been chaptalized. Secondly, even if there really was a loosening of inhibitions concerning chaptalization in certain German wine growing quarters in the 1950s, Carl Schubert’s grandfather parted ways with the Naturweinversteigerer back in 1925 over just this issue, insisting that a wine was not inherently less-good or less representative of his vineyards just because he had elected to chaptalize the must. And – if for no other reason due to his prominence and his often record-breaking auction prices – von Schubert’s decision elicited extensive discussion. Carl von Schubert – thinking of his grandfather, no doubt – used to often tell me in the ‘80s and early ‘90s (after which, increasingly ripe vintages essentially rendered the matter moot): “I really should have the courage to price my wines by taste and in some instances to charge more for the best lot of “Q.b.A.” than for a Kabinett.” He never did muster that courage. But this only shows how effective Germany’s 1971 Wine Law was in reinforcing and entrenching nation-wide that prejudice against chaptalization that was the prime tenet of the VDP’s forerunners. Which brings me to one last point …

    4.
    In order to appreciate the issue of chaptalization in perspective it is very important to challenge anybody who thinks that it makes a difference in principle and regardless of degree, to demonstrate that this is a difference you can consistently recognize by taste as resulting from chaptalization and that it is always deleterious. I don’t want to bore readers with old anecdotes (well, just one ;- ), but rest assured that I have often been able to pour for expert tasters including on occasion the grower of the wines in question “Q.b.A.” trocken and Spätlese trocken (or even Auslese trocken) from the same site and vintage where the presence or absence of chaptalization could not be discerned. On one memorable occasion, Johannes Selbach required less than one minute, tasted blind, to ascertain that the wine I had poured for him was a 1988 Zeltinger Schlossberg trocken he had bottled a dozen years prior. But as the wine was showing beautifully and was quite full for Riesling, he assume it must be not his Spätlese trocken from that site and year but rather a special Auslese-must bottling, which he wondered how I could ever have acquired, as it was never for sale and he’d never opened it for me. Well, the wine was neither. It was the “regular” lot from that site and vintage, which had been lightly chaptalized.

    And in the case of Burgundy, since so many of the best growers practice fractional chaptalization as a means of prolonging fermentation (and did so even when this was technically illegal because all of any sugar was supposed to go in at once) are those who view chaptalization as “unnatural,” “manipulative,” or a crutch also really prepared to claim that the wines of these growers are for that reason less tasty and that the Chevillons, Grivots, Mugnerets &c. are deluding themselves in their belief to the contrary?

    To allege that there is some huge qualitative divide between wines from chaptalized and from unchaptalized musts is to take a position based on ideology or metaphysics, not chemistry or taste. Please don’t misunderstand me. Ideology can be important. There are moral criteria – possibly even aesthetic ones (a tricky topic for another time) – that transcend taste; though it must be said that in Germany the widespread phobia of sugar as it relates to both musts and finished wines (often without distinguishing between these ;- ) has historically approached utter irrationality, and seldom involved any reference to taste. (In which regard, see the extended discussion – reprinted in part on this site – that Terry Theise and I attempted to have with an offended Stuart Pigott about the prevailing fashion for legal dryness in German Riesling.) And as regards taste, naturally (oops ;- ) chaptalization influences flavor. But, I submit, it doesn’t always do so negatively, and it often does so in ways that even the most experienced taster cannot correctly identify as the result of chaptalization. If you believe (as did, for example, de Montille) that alcoholic levity and clarity of flavor are cardinal vinous virtues you might elect to eschew any chaptalization in a belief that this will enhance the incidence of those virtues in your wines. But it is an awfully difficult – indeed, I believe untenable – case to argue that on the organoleptic evidence any wine whatsoever that you bottled would have been worse had its must been to even a small degree sugared.

    • Bert Celce says:

      Thank you for your detailed and informative answer, David, each time I learn more of the nuances of winemaking and history in Germany (I had a long way to go, I must admit).

      You are right with this thing of reassembling of cuvées or blocks, good point.

      Regarding sweet wines (which are often got lots of SO2 although other techniques would allow lower dosages) there are few vintners who make sweet wines without SO2, but I know several of them, Philippe Jambon, Pat Desplats and Jerôme Saurigny. I can’t but think that the fall in consumption of sweet wines in France comes from the combination of chaptalization and high SO2, people may not tell you immediately the difference when they get a glass with a standard, corrected wine but the figures of the market don’t lie, people don’t buy these wines anymore. On the other hand, give me a sweet white from one of these 3 guys, I’ll finish the bottle in no time…

      • You seem to equate chaptalization with sweetening the wine, Bert. But sugaring is meant to increase the alcoholic strength of the wine. This is different from arresting fermentation to make a sweet wine.

        • Bert Celce says:

          Hi Lars,

          I was adressing David who was speaking about sweetening in the following sentence (and not about increasing the alcohol) :

          “What’s more, sweetening remains entirely legal, whether it involves adding un-fermented or par-fermented must or for that matter (as happens routinely even at top-notch estates today) a bit of TBA, BA or Eiswein that the grower deems too tiny or otherwise unsuited to bottling on its own.”

          The intent here was clearly to sweeten the wine with an entirely-different type of wine. In that regard the other wine is clearly used for the sweetening, not to bring complexity through a different terroir/parcel like when you blend parcel-wines.

    • David, you give a great example of Maximin Grünhaus, which got out of the VDP and continued to produce delicious QbA wines. Your reference to de Montille reminds me of Henrik Möbitz, who initially refused to chaptalize any of his Pinot Noirs. Yet, later on, he changed his position on this point. Sven Enderle of Enderle & Moll says that, ideally, he would like to avoid chaptalization if the grapes are ripe enough. But some clients don’t like wines that are too light in body.

      Without being dogmatic, I like the idea of a Mosel grower (especially on the Saar or Ruwer) who chooses not to add sugar to the fermenting must and to let the wine naturally reach its stopping point without cooling it down and adding SO2 to make a residually sweet Kabinett or Spätlese. Unfortunately, the VDP only highlights the latter or GGs.

      Apropos the Terry Theise and Stuart Pigott debate, I just reported on a recent spring wine festival in Trier-Zurlauben, where most of the Germans preferred off-dry Mosel Riesling, not dry.

  • Kevin Goldberg says:

    I would simply add two things to David’s excellent points. First, there can be no doubt that Chaptalization and other types of “kuenstliche” Verbesserung were employed across the spectrum of winegrowers; large or small, elite or not elite. Much of the hubub was about who should or should not have access to these methods. Of course, for the 19th century, we are dealing with a period when equality and equal access were but distant dreams. Second, and this is more of a question than a point. While one could not with 100% accuracy discern a Chaptalized from a non-Chaptalized wine today, i wonder how long this narrow proximity between the types has actually been the case. Maybe, with more rudimentary calculations, poorer ingredients, and less oversight, there was more of a marked difference between the types before, let’s say, 1945. I really don’t know, but i suspect that this is very possible. This would really place a distinct boundary between “old” Chaptalization and “new” Chaptalization.

  • David Schildknecht says:

    Bert,

    regarding the fall in fashion of sweet wine, that happens to be something about which I have written quite a bit, especially in Austria, but the phenomenon applies to virtually all of the classic regions that specialize in or produce especially notable nobly sweet wine. I must say that I have never heard high sulfur adduced as an important reason why consumers reject these wines, so I have to consider and research that hypothesis. But there are certainly enough other explanations including the cost of rendering top-notch examples; the fading fashion for aperitivs generally; and especially the lack of time to appreciate these quintessential “slow wines.” As you intimate, one can render outstanding nobly sweet wine with more SO2 or less and there are a few practitioners (in Austria as well as in France) who get-by with very modest additions.

    On the larger matter of growers “fessing-up” (as we say stateside ;- ) I am entirely with you at least in principle that growers should be more open. Indeed, it’s treating something like watering (as widely practiced in Northern California) or chaptalization (as widely practiced in Burgundy) as though it were taboo that makes growers reluctant to mention them, which in turn only reinforces the taboo. But one has to consider legitimate grounds for that reluctance. Most consumers know too little about how wine is made to adequately interpret the significance (or its lack) of adding sugar, water, acid, sulfur, or anything else. Furthermore, unless some table is drawn-up of additives whose presence or absence one is required to state (where? on the label?) it is impossible to know whether those additives that the grower admits to represent a complete list.

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