Wine 101: Residual Sugar

Following my post on icewine, I received a few emails on what I meant by “residual sugar.” As someone who is a “dry winer”, I typically stay away from wines over 0.3% residual sugar, but let’s talk a bit about it today! It is Thirsty Thursday after all…

You probably know that wines come in a variety of sweetness. There are your dry wines, off dry, sweet, dessert and a number of other known descriptors. If you are out on a wine-tasting adventure do not fear asking the sweetness of a wine.  Most wineries train their servers to educate guests on wine and want to lead you to their wine selections which best meet your palate. This means you may hear the residual percentage of a wine while it is being poured. Something along the lines of, “This traminette is an off-dry wine with 2.1% residual sugar.” But what does this wine jargon actually mean?

Residual sugar most often refers to any natural grape sugars leftover after fermentation ceases (though it can also refer to the addition of ordinary table sugar.) During the fermentation process, yeast “feasts” upon the sugars; however, some sugars may be in a finished wine from when yeasts did not convert them into alcohol. This may be done naturally or deliberately. If the alcohol levels have not killed off the yeast yet, then winemakers can measure the fermentation process and deliberately stop it so that some of the natural sugars from the grapes can give the finished wine some sweetness. Residual sugar has become quite an exact science; winemakers halt wines at the exact sweetness preferred.

If you are curious as to the residual sugar in the wine you are drinking, you may be out of luck. Finding good, hard information on residual sugar can be tricky. Information on residual sugar is not required to be expressed on labels. However, for the sake of knowledge, I’ll tell you that residual sugar is “displayed” as a percentage. This refers to grams of sugar per liter of wine. So when the Domaine Berrien’s 2017 Cabernet Franc Icewine I discussed in my Icewine post was said to have 28% residual sugar this means that it has 280 grams of sugar for each liter of wine. (Holy sweet!)

There is also the little tidbit that residual sugar is not the only factor in the sweetness of a wine. How sweet a wine will taste is also controlled by factors such as acidity, alcohol levels, and tannin presence. A sweet wine with high acidity may end up tasting dry. A dry wine with elevated alcohol levels might taste sweet. It is when you have a careful balance of such elements along with residual sugar that a harmonious result is produced.

Thank you for the questions, friends! I love meeting new readers, and look forward to sharing more with you soon.

Sweet tastings,

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