The subject of sugar in wine has become a lot more popular in recent years, probably as a result of the health issues facing Ireland (and most of the developed world). I would add as a preamble to this post that in my opinion, there is nothing in wine as poorly understood as the role of sugar.
Over many years in the wine business, I have gained an understanding of the different methods of wine making. This has given me an understanding of the role of sugar and the importance of where it comes from.
I have briefly touched on this topic in previous posts, particularly in a recent one – Give Sweet Wines a Chance. In this post I want to delve into an uncensored opinion, describing sugar content in wine. I hope to outline its effect on the taste, and your health through the intake of calories.
It is my intention to demystify the topic of sugar in wine. After reading this, you will have increased your knowledge on the topic. Hopefully, it will enable you to make personal decisions on what wines you drink.
Some of this post may border on the technical, but I will do my best to keep it simple.
Residual Sugar vs Added Sugar.
In my previous post, above, I explained how the fermentation process works and how sugar is involved. To summarise, grapes contain sugar (a blend of glucose and fructose), and yeast. During fermentation, the yeast reacts with the sugar and converts it to alcohol and CO2.
Once the alcohol level is high enough, it kills the yeast. Any remaining sugar (not converted) becomes the wine’s residual sugar content.
In general, the residual sugar content after fermentation is inversely proportionate to the alcohol level. This means that higher alcohol wines have less sugar and lower alcohol wines have more sugar.
Before we continue, I would like to quickly distinguish between residual sugar and added sugar. Residual sugar (RS) is as described above. Added sugar is where the winemaker adds sugar (in liquid form) after the wine is fermented, usually before bottling or corking.
Flavoured wines would be an example of sugar being added after fermentation. The measure of residual sugar in wine is often referred to as Brix.
Sugar Content in Wine.
The sugar content in wine varies from wine to wine. There are a number of factors that affect the amount of sugar that ends up in wine, such as:
- Type of Wine
- Grape Variety
- Time of harvesting
Factors that can affect the taste of sweetness in a wine also include
- Alcohol content of the wine
- Acidity of the wine
- Amount of tannins present
How to Measure Residual Sugar in Wine.
Here’s a little bit of tech, so you can skip to the calories section below if you’re not interested in this stuff.
Residual sugar in wine is usually measured in grams per litre. The abbreviation for this is g/l or g/L. Most wines – even the driest of wines – have at least one gram per litre of residual sugars after fermentation.
Sweet wines have anywhere from 45 grams per litre to 150 grams per litre or even more.
Red wines and dry whites measure in the low ranges of grams per litre – coming in around one or two grams per litre. A Champagne usually has some added sugar (dosage) where RS is more than 4 or 5g per litre.
Some cheap wine producers add sugar because they have used poor quality grapes, and sugar may be used to hide unwanted tastes. Small amounts of sugar may also be added to provide some consistency in taste, as yearly harvests are always a bit different.
Sugar is of course not always a bad thing. Acidity and sugar content are balancing factors in wine. Sugar also helps wine age more gracefully.
Wines can be generally organized into five different sweetness levels based on their residual sugar content. Bone dry, Dry, Off-Dry, Sweet and Very Sweet.
Here is a good infographic from WineFolly that explains sugar in wine in a simple way.
Residual sugar levels vary in different types of wine. In fact, many cheaper wines found on the bottom shelves of big supermarkets, labelled as “dry”, contain about 10 g/L of residual sugar. Noticeably sweet wines start at around 35 grams per litre of residual sugar and then go up from there.
I will finish this section by saying that some Countries (France and Germany) do allow added sugar. This is a method called Chaptalization, used to increase the alcohol content when using underripe grapes. The process is not intended to make the wine sweeter – but rather to provide more sugar for the yeast to ferment into alcohol.
Calories in Wine.
Unfortunately, I must advise you that there are calories in wine. Most questions I receive, when discussing the sugar in wine topic, are along the lines of – how many calories are in this (insert favourite wine)? Are some wines lighter in calories than others etc?
To answer these here, let’s consider the following facts:
- Alcohol lies in between carbs (4 calories) and pure fat (9 calories) at 7 calories per gram. So, the higher alcohol content (% ABV) the higher the calories.
- Wine = water + alcohol + residual sugar + acid. The acids are not metabolised by our body so, wine = alcohol + residual sugar.
- Here are some rule-of-thumbs:
- – For Dry Wines
A standard glass of dry wine (6oz or 175ml) with relatively low alcohol (at 12%) contains about 130 Calories
A standard glass of dry wine (6oz or 175ml) with high alcohol (at 15%) contains about 170 Calories.
- – For Sweet Wines
A standard glass of sweet wine contains closer to 200 calories per glass.
If you remember that most wines contain about 150 Calories per standard glass (175ml or 6 oz.), you won’t be too far off.
- Alcohol levels in sparkling wines tend to be lower than in other types of wines as acidity needs to be higher.
Social Vignerons have a wonderful table (below) that is “indicative of approximated calorie counts in popular foods and wine styles.”
To the developing human body, sugar—a carbohydrate—represents an easy fuel source. But too much sugar can bring health problems. The key to good health is a balanced diet. Similarly, the key to a good wine is also balance.
In relation to calories, the way to reduce their intake through wine would include, drink less, drink water or chose lower alcohol wines. I mean there’s no reason to think that a glass of wine is bad for you purely in calorie terms.
Wine is meant to be consumed in moderation. Like everything, it’s best without excess. And if I was to summarise this post in a few words – I would say that when appraising sugar content in wine – it’s all about quality not quantity.
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Talk to you soon, James.