Residual Sugar in Wine: Can We All Just Chill Out???
By: Fleur Alvarez
Sugar…visions of bleach-white menacing little granules of PURE, PURE EVIL!? Sound about right? We certainly have learned to love hating the 12 atoms of carbon, 22 of hydrogen, and 11 of oxygen that compose our little molecular buddies we call sucrose…but, is our vilification just, or are we simply stickin’ these dudes with a bum rap?
Venture on my plucky readers, in hopes that these soothing words will assuage your fears, demystify your concerns, and perhaps even comfort you to the point of embracing these absolutely necessary and not-so-bad guys of wine!
So, What Even Is It?
Just as in all fruits, grapes contain sugar, and lucky for us, they do, for without sugar, the genesis of alcohol would be impossible. Yeast LOVES to eat this sugar, and whatever’s left after the fermentation process is complete is called Residual Sugar or “R.S.” if you wanna get super hip with it. Winemakers measure this sugar by grams per liter, ranging from almost 0g per liter up to over 45g per liter. Here in the wine shop, we use the terms Bone-Dry (0-1g), Dry (1-4g), Off-Dry Semi-Dry (4-12g), Semi-Sweet (8-45g), and Sweet (over 45g). Depending on country of origin, you will encounter a plethora of terms. The French use the terms; Sec (dry), Demi-Sec (off-dry), Moelleux (semi-sweet), and Doux (sweet). Spanish wines are categorized as; Seco (dry), Semiseco (semi-dry), Semidulce (off-dry to semi-sweet), and Dulce (sweet). In Germany, the classifications are; Trocken (dry), Halbtrocken (half-dry), Feinherb (off-dry), Liebliche (semi-dry), and süß (sweet). Looking for these telltale terms on the labels of your potential bottle purchases will greatly aid you in finding the ideal wines for your palette and food pairings (more on that later!).
So, how are the levels of these sugars determined, one might ask? As would be expected, different varietals of grapes contain varying degrees of naturally occurring sugar, climate also plays a role (colder climate grapes can ripen more slowly.) Winemakers can, and sometimes do, add sugar to their pressed grape juice either by a process called Chaptalization used to up the alcohol levels of those colder climate growths or through use of a Dosage, seen within Champagne, sparkling, and Pet-Nat wine production. This Dosage, a mixture of little base wine, a little fruit sugar, a little sulfur dioxide, and sometimes a little base alcohol, is added to these bottle-fermented wines to encourage a secondary fermentation as well as to balance acid. However, these levels are also controlled by the winemakers’ choices concerning time of harvest (typically, the later the harvest, the sweeter the juice.), halting fermentation (either by lowering temperatures or by adding a paltry amount of sulfur dioxide.) which can preserve some of the wine’s natural sweetness, also by allowing for skin-contact (letting those little grape babies rest against each other longer, A.K.A. Maceration.) resulting in the heightened production of tannin (those yummy tea-like bitter notes!)…these wines, while having elevated aromatics, can present less sweet than may be assumed by these aromas, SUPER COOL!
A Lovely Little Slice of Perspective…
Now that we know where these sugars come from and why they are indeed vital, we can have ourselves a little huddle and talk about having perspective with sugar in our wine. A typical wine pour is 5oz, in an average white wine that pour will contain 1.4 grams of sugar, in an average red wine you’re getting 0.9 grams of sugar. When it comes to other beverages that are not water, we’re dealing with much more copious amounts of sugar, plus the majority of that is just straight-up added non-naturally occurring sugars. Fruit juice will have about 22-25g, sweetened teas range from 22g all the way up to 65g! Soda? Fugetaboutit…you’re into 40-69g! My point being, there is sugar in just about everything we drink, even cow’s milk, oat milk, energy drinks, and so forth. Sooo, the leftover sugar in your glass of wine is most likely negligible at best.
To add even more facet, there are even more factors to consider when thinking about how sugar will affect the taste of your wine. Most notably, the wine’s acid and tannin! The bright, sharp, drying and grippiness of these tones will oftentimes override the detectable sweetness of a wine, causing that sweetness to balance out and take a backseat to these more austere notes.
Can We Just Drink Already!?
All that being said, you can, and should, seek out both some bone-dry-turn-your-face-inside-out wines as well as wines that deliver a lovely caress of sweetness…and guess what? They can all be so AWESOME! Try a Kabinett Riesling, ask for mineral-driven Chenin, get crazy and try a Sauternes, hunt down a Dornfelder. The world is literally your personal vineyard! You’ll be pleasantly surprised how just a few baby steps outside your comfort zone will explode the vastness of your wine world. Do it for your palate, do it for the long line of wine drinkers who came before you, do it for humanity, but most of all do it for fun!
Be bold, we believe in you!
P.S. Let Us Not Forget To Eat!
When wine is not the main, or only, course, you may consider pairing it with some food. Here is a quick little breakdown of some suggested pairings for dry and sweet, white and red wines.
Dry Whites: Rich cheese dominant sauces, salt bombs such as olives, sardines, and capers, soft cheese like triple cream brie or camembert, burrata, and strawberry salad topped with balsamic reduction, any of the small sea creatures think mussels, scallops, and oysters.
Off-Dry & Sweeter Whites: Duck and more duck, Bleu and any funky cheese, dark chocolate, black truffle, all the aromatic, and spicy foods…Indian, Moroccan, and Thai are all sure bets!
Dry Reds: Grilled vegetables, filet mignon with compound butter, molé enchiladas, hard cheeses like Gruyere or Grana Padano, rosemary garlic leg of lamb, and seared foie gras.
Off-Dry & Sweeter Reds: Korean short ribs, spicy peanut curry, aromatic cheeses like taleggio, Limburger, or Epoisses de Bourgogne, grilled fennel bulb, tarragon honey garlic pork chops, and homemade salted chocolate chip cookies.