Sugar and Wine – Residual and Added

Sugar and wine. This whole thing about tons of sugar cubes filling up wineglasses, and advertising “zero added sugar” wines has to stop.

This is so not right. Advertising a ZERO ADDED SUGAR wine is like advertising ground beef with ZERO ADDED GLUTEN. What? Sometimes companies will add sugar to wine – but it’s honestly more unusual than usual. We’ll get to that.

Here’s the thing – consumers don’t know better! So they fall prey to these marketing traps. I am here to provide some clarity and help you find wines you’ll actually like.

First – Sugar In the Vineyard #

Sugar is a natural byproduct of grapes. Unless a winemaker is making a sweet wine or messes up, there is zero need to add sweetness to wine. In fact – this process is prohibited in most regions in Europe.Adding sugar is typically allowed only in New World wines. Quite frankly, it usually means someone messed up, or it’s an inexpensive bottle of wine. Furthermore – if sweetening is needed, in quality wines, it will be with unfermented grape must (juice).

These vintages are rare, specific years when the weather doesn’t cooperate. In this circumstance, a winemaker may need to add sweetness to a wine because the grapes are too acidic. If it’s a quality winemaker (aka more than $15/bottle) it will be done well and the wine won’t taste sweet. If it’s an even higher quality winemaker, they likely will take the financial hit and not sell as much, or downgrade their wine to a lower tier (as they do in Europe).

As grapes grow, there is a process that occurs for about 8-10 weeks called “veraison” during which the berries change color (red grapes go from green to red/black, white grapes go from green to golden) and the sugar levels rise as acidity levels drop.

This happens much faster in warm climates versus cool climates.

Sugar in The Winery #

When grapes are brought into the winery, they are split open gently so that the juice can run out. Sometimes they sit with the skins (in white wines, or always in reds). Then, yeast is added. This can be the natural yeast already on the grapes or it can be commercially bought to produce specific flavors. Different yeast strains have different flavors. It’s like if I wanted “true” sourdough bread, I would try to get a yeast strain from San Francisco – where Sourdough made its claim to fame.

Winemaking 101 #

Yeast eats sugar. This creates CO2 and alcohol.

Think about this logically. If yeast easts sugar, it will eat all the sugar in the wine, until the wine reaches 15% alcohol. If the grapes are from a hot climate, they get riper and thereby have more sugar, there’s more food for the yeast which will produce more alcohol. This will happen up until 15% alcohol is reached. Then the yeast will die because it can’t survive in that environment. In cooler climates, the yeast won’t have as much to eat so the wine can be closer 11-14% ABV.

How to Make A Sweet Wine #

There are a number of ways to get a “sweet” wine. Here are 3 of the most common ways:

  1. Pick ripe grapes at harvest and stop fermentation part-way through. The wine is chilled to a point where the yeast stops working, thereby some sugar is left in the wine. (This is how high quality Kabinett and Sp├Ątlese wines are made!). These wines will be lower in alcohol (~8-9% ABV).
  2. Leave grapes on the vine until they are overly ripe (not quite raisins but getting there). Sugar levels will be higher, fermentation can be stopped early (leaving sugar in the wine to make a sweet style) or finished (making a dry wine). These wines are often called “Late Harvest”.
  3. Adding Sweetening Component. In Germany some sweet wines are made by adding unfermented grape must (juice) to dry (non-sweet) wines prior to bottling. This is not usually not done with high quality wines. In other parts of the world, Rectified Concentrated Grape Must (RCGM) is added to create semi-sweet high-volume inexpensive wines. This is where the added sugar comes in. But as I mentioned – it’s not very common in high quality wines.

Back to Winemaking #

Typically, wines will be fermented to dry, and have less than 10g/L of sugar. There are 4 grams in 1 teaspoon. So that’s, essentially, up to 2 teaspoons of sugar in your 750mL bottle of wine (not sugar cubes upon sugar cubes). An inexpensive red wine that’s high 14-15% ABV, from a hot climate, will likely have some residual sugar. Because that wine is cheaply made and that sugar is kept to balance out the alcohol content. (Hello, 19Crimes).

In grapes that are so ripe, like Late Harvest, there can be more sugar than what the yeast can eat. This leads to residual sugar in the wine. Many off-dry wines are made using this method, for example, Trockenbeerenauslesen which stops fermenting at about 7% ABV.

Notice I am saying residual sugar – not added sugar. So far, most high quality wines have left residual sugar from the grapes in the wine, not added any. It’s not that it’s a good or bad thing – it’s just not happening. So for a wine to advertise “no added sugar” is sort of point mute. Unless a wine is specified as sweet, it’s rare to have added sugar. In other words, you can still have a dry, off-dry or even sweet wine, without having “added” any sugar, because the sweetness is coming from residual sugar that was already naturally in the grapes.

So how do you know what the sugar level is? #

With German wines, in a cold climate, it’s a little reversed. If you see a low ABV (like 8-9%) and the wine says Kabinett, Spatlese, or Auslese, then it’s likely off-dry. If you see a Kabinett, Spatlese, or Auslese that has a 10-12% ABV, it’s like been fermented dry (no residual sugar).

Now, let’s take a peek at an inexpensive wine from a hot climate: 19Crimes (the Australian red blend). These wines are a whopping $9.99 or less in stores.

They have an incredibly dark color, high alcohol content, spicy oak aromas (from the oak chips), and jammy juicy flavors. The wine sits on your palate due to the full body and residual sugar.

Inexpensive Winemaking #

When making a wine of this style – time is money. Winemakers don’t take time to let color develop on it’s own, rather they “encourage it” by vigorously mixing the grape skins into the juice. Mechanically extracting that color, sort of like dipping a tea bag up and down in your hot water to get all the flavor out as quickly as possible, versus just letting it steep.

These vigorous and quick punchdowns can extract bitterness from the grape seeds and introduce other bitter components into the wine.

The quick winemaking plus the high alcohol and the spiciness of the oak chips (less expensive and much heavier than new oak barrels) need balance with sugar.

19Crimes Residual Sugar #

I’ve heard that some bottles of 19Crimes have up to 23g/L of residual sugar, and others have said 12g/L RS. 19Crimes doesn’t share tech sheets to the public unfortunately, so I can’t get you a hard number. But either way, this wine is considered semi-sweet (more sweet than off-dry) by many reviewers.

The whole winemaking process takes very little time and the wines have very little finesse or elegance. It’s a fruit bomb with some spicy oak notes jam packed into a bottle.

Other Real World Examples – Wine Folly #

The Sweet Takeaway #

I say this, not to disregard 19Crimes’ wine but, to explain the differences between winemaking aimed at quantity versus quality.

19Crimes, and arguably all wine, was made for people to like it – so don’t feel “unsophisticated” if you do. It’s made for you to want to drink over and over again. You’re supposed to like this wine.

Rather, I tell you these things so that you can:

a) understand what sweetness in wine can do (balance acidity, tannin, alcohol, and be delicious like in high quality German wines).

b) begin to understand inexpensive versus expensive winemaking techniques.

c) understand that cheap wines will typically have higher sugar levels (less than $15, and above 6g/L residual sugar)

There is so much more to this topic. However, this article gives you a good basis of knowledge on sweetness in wine. They may be great wines, and if you like them, drink them! All I ask is that you drink them because you like them, not because you think they’re unique due to no added sweetness.

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