The Sugar Rush in Sainte Croix du Mont

Sainte Croix du Mont is a little appellation in Bordeaux which lies next to Loupiac, facing Sauternes and Barsac, that makes sweet wine. This AOC is endowed with one of nature’s strange wonders. It lies upon a panoramic plateau comprised of vast fossilised oyster beds which give it an exceptional terroir. However this is not the reason why it has made headlines in France recently.

Apparently the owner of the local village shop got herself into hot water with the fraud prevention agency DGCCDF for selling sugar. Adding sugar to wine during fermentation is permitted in France but it is strictly controlled – and taxed.

For every 100 kilos of sugar purchased for this purpose a tax is imposed of 13 euros. The village shop serves a population of 900 and in 2007 over a 3 month period the amount of sugar sold corresponded to the consumption of a city of 10,000 inhabitants.

The store owner’s lawyer argued that the shop’s manager, Therese Solano, said that her customers were making jam, as far as she knew, and that her competitive pricing attracted a wide clientèle.

However the court dismissed the explanation as lacking credibility, pointing out the spikes in sales at around harvest time, notably in 2007. The court found that she had sold 157 tonnes of sugar without invoices and without recording the purchaser’s names, over a two-year period and she received a suspended 5,000 euro fine.

The year 2007 is remembered for its dismal weather, one of the factors which can prompt wine producers to add sugar to their harvest. The DGCCRF told AFP it suspects the shop was helping local wine producers sweeten their crop beyond the authorised limit — rather than dodge taxes.

No specific growers were named in the case, but the local wine syndicate, located a few steps from Le Montecrucien, expressed indignation at the implied guilt of the 50 estates producing Sainte Croix du Mont appellation wines.

“The quantity of sugar is too enormous to only concern the winegrowers of our appellation,” said syndicate head Nicolas Solane.

I tend to agree with Solane: Saint Croix du Mont only has 460 hectares (1137 acres) of vineyards and the grapes are affected by botrytis cinera (noble rot) in order to make the sweet wines.

The production of such wines is very labour intensive with grapes being hand picked over several harvesting sessions so the yield is therefore low (for example Chateau d’Yquem over in the Sauternes AOC averages 9 hectolitres per hectare compared to the rest of Bordeaux which averages 45 hectolitres per hectare).

Furthermore the shrivelled grapes yield only a small amount of juice. – it’s not uncommon for an entire grapevine to produce only enough juice to make a single glass of wine.

The suspected sugar scam is the largest in recent memory in the Bordeaux region, but a similar scandal erupted in the rival Beaujolais wine making region in 2009, in which 600 tonnes of sugar was sold without invoices to winemakers.

In that instance 53 Beaujolais producers received fines ranging from 2,000 to 20,000 euros. Two middlemen and three supermarkets and their directors were also convicted and fined.

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