Wine column no. 58: It's important to read between the lines

Sept. 21, 2014: I’ll just go ahead and say it: Titles matter.

They can be declarative and straightforward (“The Great Gatsby,” “Robinson Crusoe”), telling you who they are about right away. They can introduce new concepts (“Catch-22,” “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”) that then make their way into the modern lexicon. Or they can be obscure and contemplative (“1984,” “A Tale of Two Cities”), forcing you to read the whole book to know what they refer to.

So when I encountered a wine labeled Worthy, I just had to ask: Is it? At least when it comes to the 2008 Worthy Sophia’s Cuvée by Axios Napa Valley, the answer is an emphatic and resounding, “Yes.”

The 2008 is a Bordeaux blend of 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 9 percent Petite Verdot, 8 percent Cabernet Franc, and 8 percent Malbec, though all the grapes are sourced from Napa Valley, California. At 14 percent alcohol, it has a pleasant black currant and blackberry nose and flavor and a smooth yet slightly uneven texture that enables it to seep, nimbly, throughout the crevices of your mouth and tongue. Worthy is unusual because it allows you to accept two mutually contradictory and correct characteristics at the same time. I’ll say it again: This wine is worth doubling up on. $28.59. Winetree East.

Why is a wine from California proud to call itself a Bordeaux blend? That’s a topic worth many subtitles. The simple answer is that the 2008 Worthy is made of grapes that are grown in California but that also happen to be grown in the Bordeaux region of France. But I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that many American wine companies also use the term because it brings them a certain level of prestige.

Yet is there a downside to associating with Bordeaux? I’m half-French, so I think I can answer this question somewhat confidently: Maybe, depending on what you value, want, or think is important.

Wines made in Bordeaux, a region in the southwestern portion of France, have a reputation for being expensive and of high quality. That’s the salesperson’s reason to add the title to the label. Yet not many people know that, for years, winemakers in Bordeaux regularly added excess sugar before or during the fermentation process in order to raise the levels of alcohol in their finished wines.

According to Wine Spectator, chaptalization is an age-old winemaking practice named for Napoleon’s Minister of Agriculture, Jean-Antoine Chaptal, who helped popularize the practice — though it existed long before it was given a name. Even the Romans chaptalized their wines, leading me to conclude that some things can become standard practice without being named at all.

You don’t need to chaptalize to make wine. Fermentation naturally creates alcohol; yeast metabolizes the sugar in grapes to form ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. But if the grapes are unripe, or if they bring too little sugar to the process, it can be harder for the wine to succeed on its own. Chaptalization, then, is a crutch when it appears there’s no other option. It helps a wine build body and depth. It also allows the fruit to convey more richness and makes it seem sweeter.

Chaptalization is legal in some areas and illegal in others. In cooler places like Bordeaux, where it’s harder for grapes to fully ripen, the practice is allowed, though there are restrictions on the amount of sugar that can be added to the original product. Chaptalization is illegal in California and Italy — but some winemakers do it anyway.

In 1989, for instance, the combination of large, slow-ripening crops, cool weather and harvest rains in California meant the grapes had very low sugar contents. “Some of us indulged in (chaptalization) to make something decent from a rough vintage,” a prominent Napa winemaker told Wine Spectator in April 2003.

Just adding 116 pounds of sugar to a 700-gallon vat of red wine, for instance, will raise the alcohol level by one degree. This dependable scientific formula likely enhances chaptalization’s allure. Why work hard to style a wine on your own terms when an easy formula can always save the day?

Yet Wine Spectator cautions against taking the easy way out.

Quality winemakers recognize that chaptalization will never transform poor grapes into good wine. Used judiciously (and I would hope legally), it's a tool that allows vintners to achieve the style and balance they desire, the magazine said. In fact, over-chaptalized wines are unbalanced and boozy, and wines without enough fruit concentration can make the alcohol seem excessive.

“Sugar is one thing and maturity is another," said Michel Niellon, owner and winemaker of Domaine Niellon, a top producer in Chassagne-Montrachet. "Sugar doesn't replace maturity, it doesn't give perfume or ripe fruit."

So what’s the downside of being associated with Bordeaux? That’s hard to say, but I can tell you there’s no shortcut to figuring out what’s best for you in the long run. Above all, keep in mind that titles are just one part of a wine; subtitles matter, too.

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