Sweetness in wine is one of those wine topics that is surrounded by a lot of misconceptions. Most people that love wine, but are not much educated on wines, think of sweetness as something that is solely dependent on the grape variety.
Well, they are wrong! If you want to learn a few more practical things about sweetness in the wine, then keep on reading.
Sweetness in Wine 101
First and most important of all, wines can be dry all sweet. In most cases, it is the winemaker that determines whether the wine will be dry, sweet, or if it is sweet, then how sweet. The grape variety can be influential, but it is the winemaker that has the last word and can make the wine one or another way.
The Thing is almost all sweetness comes from natural grape sugar leftovers once the process of fermentation is done. Winemakers use the term “residual sugar” or just RS. Wines that don’t contain any sugar are called dry wines.
Wine sweetness can be zero or as high as 70%. If you want to understand how sweet some wine is, check out its wine tech sheet. Here’s what the numbers mean:
- Wines featuring less than 1% sweetness are considered dry
- Wines featuring around and more than 3% are considered semi-sweet
- Wines whose sweetness goes above 5% are considered noticeable sweet
- Wines whose sweetness range from 7% to 9% are considered dessert wines
To have a better picture, keep in mind that 1% sweetness is the same as 10 g/l residual sugar. Also, 1% of sweetness features up to 2 carbs per 5 oz. serving.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the average wine drinker cannot recognize a sweetness level that is less than 1.5%. On the other hand, trained wine tasters can detect sweetness within a 2% range.
It’s also worth noting that some fruit wines which are renowned for being sweet – such as plum wine, blueberry wine, and others – are subject to different classifications on “sweetness” than the fixed assumptions shown in the list above.
History of Wine Sweetness
Throughout time, there were several methods used to sweeten the wine. One of the most common ways was to harvest the wine as late as possible. This first started in Roman times and was championed by two poets called Martial and Virgil.
Then there were the ancient Greeks that harvested the wine early in the season so that they could preserve its acidity. Afterward, they would leave it in the sun for a few days shrivel. That way, they allowed for the sugar to be concentrated.
A similar method was used in Crete. Winemakers would twist the stalks of the grape so they could deprive it of its sap and allow them to dry on the vine. This method was known as “passum” and was also popular in some parts of Italy where it was known as “passito”. According to some historical sources, the method was initially invented in Carthage.
Ancient Greeks and Romans also knew how to stop fermentation and enhance wine’s sweetness. They managed to do so by submerging the amphorae in cold water during winter.
Germans used a method called Sussreserve to sweeten the wine. They simply added some form of sugar in the wine after the process of fermentation was over. Romans also did this, but instead used honey and flavored spices.
Sweetness in Relation to Other Components
Sweetness in wine can be diminished by other elements like tannin, alcohol levels, and acidity. Each of those elements can diminish the effects of sweetness or vice versa.
For example, high alcohol levels will increase the sensation of sweetness in the wine. On the other hand, acid, viscosity, and tannin can have the opposite effect – they can diminish the sensation of sweetness. The wine can have a high level of RS, but it won’t taste as sweet as expected. That’s the direct effect of elements like tannin and acid. Then there is perceived viscosity that can be increased by RS.
But from all elements, it is the acidity that matters most. Wine researchers are set on a path to quantify that relation. Much effort was put into that by the International Riesling Foundation (IRF). The reason for their ambiguous quest is because consumers find it very difficult to determine Riesling sweetness by merely looking at the bottle’s label.
Is Residual Sugar the Devil?
Refined sugar may be the devil, but that’s not necessarily the case with residual sugar. Residual sugar is nothing but a tool used by winemakers to create the best possible wine.
A few grams of residual sugar can make some wines shine. Of course, like most things in life, the key to it all is in moderation.
It matters the most to be aware of it and what it brings to the particular wine. That way, you are not surprised once you taste the wine.