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The Grapevine

Mass production of sugar killed taste for dessert wines

By Lisa Airey, thewinekey@aol.com

12:16 PM EDT, August 25, 2011

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The hunt for the sweet things in life dates back to antiquity. Mankind has used honey and tree syrups and dried fruits to boost the flavor and caloric value of their foodstuffs for millennia.

Sweet dessert wines were once all the rage for a European population unaccustomed to sugary desserts. Bordeaux's sticky Sauternes rose to world prominence during the 15th century, sweet Port from the Douro Valley of Portugal after that. "Pudding" champagnes, clocking in at well over 5 percent residual sugar, were the favorite libations of the Russian czar until the collapse of that empire in the 19th century. At this pivotal point in vinous history, Madame Pommery stylistically shifted her house style to craft a much drier Champagne. And other Champagne houses followed suit.

Today, the mainstream wine market is not driven by dessert wines, natural, fortified or sparkling. And (arguably) two culprits are to blame: sugar cane and sugar beets.

The Arabs introduced sugar cane to the Mediterranean somewhere between 600 and 800 AD and it flourished in the warm clime of what was once called Mesopotamia, even though it was native to tropical South Asia.

The plant spread to Egypt and other parts of the north African continent and then jumped to southern Spain. Christopher Columbus is responsible for introducing the plant to the Caribbean.

Production exploded in the New World, largely due to the slave trade. Sugar cane production had always been limited by the amount of labor involved in growing it and in crystalizing its juice. Slavery jumpstarted an industry.

Brazil and the West Indies began to produce sugar in such large quantities that prices fell. Low prices resulted in an increase in consumption. According to the "Cambridge World History of Food," it was at this point that sugar was transformed from a luxury product to an everyday product. Today, Americans consume an estimated 100 pounds of sugar per person each year (Live Science, June 2, 2008).

Joining the rise of sugar cane as a worldwide sweetening agent is the sugar beet. This tuber is sucrose-rich and is responsible for 30-35 percent of the world's sugar production. Once extracted from the plant root, its flavor is identical to that of cane sugar.

Its rise to sweetening prominence in Europe occurred during the Napoleonic Wars, when Britain blockaded France and eliminated the influx of sugar from the colonies. By 1807, there were more than 300 sugar beet factories operating in France and the rest of Europe.

Not only did the Europeans incorporate more sugar into their diets as a result of increased availability, but sugar ended up having other applications as well.

Jean-Antoine Chaptal, Napoleon's minister of agriculture, encouraged the addition of sugar (extracted from sugar beets) to unfermented grape juice during poor or off vintages. All of the added sugar would be fermented along with the natural grape sugars and boost alcohol levels in the finished wine. The result would be a more stable wine product.

To this day, this practice, known as chaptalization, is practiced world over in growing areas where grapes are harvested at less than optimal maturity.

Sugar (and now high-fructose corn syrup) seems to have insinuated itself in everything these days, from bread to spaghetti sauce. No wonder the general population has lost its craving for dessert wines. There is an over-abundance of sweet things on the table.

And Shakespeare saw it coming, as demonstrated in "Henry IV."

"Being daily swallow'd by men's eyes, they surfeited with honey and began to loathe the taste of sweetness, whereof a little more than a little is by much too much."