Chaptal, Jean-Antoine

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Wine

Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

  • About

Chaptal, Jean-Antoine (1756–1832), French chemist, statesman, and polymath who rose from humble beginnings to become Minister of the Interior under Napoleon. He was the son of an apothecary, and studied chemistry at the University of montpellier, where a Chair of Chemistry was founded for him in 1781. In 1799, he wrote the article on wine for the monumental Dictionnaire d’agriculture of the Abbé Rozier, but is better known in wine circles for his l’Art de faire le vin (1807) and his support for the concept of increasing the alcoholic strength of wine by adding sugar to the must, the procedure now known as chaptalization. Some winemakers throughout history sought to enhance either the quality or quantity of their product by adulterating the basic raw material, grapes, with other products. However, after the French Revolution of 1789, there was a considerable increase in the amount of poor-quality wine made in France. This provided the incentive for Chaptal to compile his famous Traité théorique et pratique sur la culture de la vigne (1801). Although he is best known for having introduced the metric system of weights and measures into France, as a practical scientist Chaptal was particularly concerned at the declining reputation of French wines, with increasing adulteration and fraud in the wine trade, and with the ignorance on the part of many French wine producers about the scientific advances that could help them. He was of the firm belief that it was perfectly natural, and desirable, to add sugar to wine in order to improve it. Although he encouraged farmers to use grape concentrate, he recognized that sugar from cane or beet was also capable of having a similar effect. (Another of Chaptal’s many achievements was his development of techniques for extracting sugar from sugar beet.) Chaptal’s treatise synthesizing beneficial winemaking techniques current at the beginning of the 19th century marked a turning point in the history of wine technology. It was translated into Italian, Spanish, German, and Hungarian. Two American versions appeared and James busby published a translation in Australia in 1825.