Join Us & Get Wine 101 Course 75% Off

Sugar in Wine, The Great Misunderstanding

Written by Stephen Reiss

“I have a beautiful Riesling that would go great with your dinner.” “No thanks, I don’t like sweet wines. I will just have a Coke.”

A dialog that has played out countless times.

How many of us think that a Coke is less sweet than the average Riesling or sweet wine? Would you be surprised to learn that Coke has about the same level of sugar, at 108 g/L, as some of the sweetest dessert wines? For example, a 5 puttonyos Tokaji Aszu has 120 g/L of residual sugar (a 4 puttonyos has 90). By the way if you have never had a 5 puttonyos Tokaji, try one, they’re outstanding!

Sugar in Wine, The Great Misunderstanding

All of these wines (and the coke) taste sweet, but as you can see, sweetness is usually a matter of perception.

Sweetness is a perception. Bitterness, like the caffeine in colas, or tannins in wine, will reduce the perception of sugar. So does acidity. Hence the delightful phosphoric acid in your Coke, and the importance of natural acidity in wine.

“We each have our own thresholds for not only sweet, but for all flavors.”

I often use lemonade as an example of this delicate balance. The sour acid of the lemons is balanced by the sweetness of the sugar. Too much of one or the other and you get a drink that is too sour or too sweet –for you. Offer the same drink to someone else, it may be perfect to them. We each have our own thresholds for not only sweet, but for all flavors.

For a well balanced Riesling, or any wine with residual sugar, the key is a careful balance between sweet and sour. This vinous juggling act is one of the toughest in winemaking and not everyone gets it right. So why then are sweeter white wines so rarely given the respect they may deserve? Talk about decent sweet wines and the conversation almost always leaps to the amazing dessert wines of the world, while bypassing those with less sugar.


Where Does Sugar in Wine Come From?

Riesling wine and grapes
The sugar in wine is called residual sugar, or RS, and it doesn’t from corn syrup or granulated sugar, but from the natural sugars found in wine grapes that include fructose and glucose. During winemaking, yeast typically converts all the sugar into alcohol making a dry wine. However, sometimes not all the sugar is fermented by the yeast leaving some sweetness leftover.


Anti-Sweetness in Wine… A Class Thing?

cheap sweet red wines
Cheap red wines are known to mask the taste of lower quality grapes with residual sugar.

Perception again, only this time the perception is not about the taste but the “class” of the wine. There is a scale of class in most people’s minds about wine that is often related to price. Those at the top are either dry or the rare expensive dessert wines. Those wines at the bottom of the scale are usually full of residual sugar, thus masking their cheap ingredients. These wines are marketed to those who care more about the alcohol than the taste. The sweet wines I am advocating are those in the forgotten middle class.

Be not ashamed of your love of sweeter wines

Mention Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Muscat and most people will immediately assume you are talking about sweeter wines. And while I am indeed talking about sweeter wines in this case, these grapes also excel as dry wines. This is less the case for the many hybrids and white wine grapes grown in lesser known wine regions around the world (e.g. most of the US).

Some sweet red wines are quite fine indeed.

These grapes, with names like Vidal Blanc and Chambourcin, are more to my personal taste when they are made in a sweeter style. Because of their fear of sugar, I feel that too many winemakers work too hard to make dry wines from these varieties, fermenting away the sweetness that is so often the source of their charm.

Be not ashamed of your love of sweeter wines, no matter what the grape variety. And if you have not yet opened your heart to these luscious beauties, be not afraid to explore. Laugh at those who would pooh-pooh your choices, knowing that they too often suffer for what they perceive as art, while you enjoy a good quaff.

Have you been secretly loving a sweet wine?

This article has been edited from its original featured by Stephen Reiss on LinkedIn

Written byStephen Reiss

Stephen Reiss Ph.D., C.W.E. is as exuberant about wine as he is a skeptic. He is often found testing conventional wine wisdom. Find him on LinkedIn

Join Our Newsletter

Jumpstart your wine education and subscribe to the Wine Folly newsletter right now. Always awesome. Always free.

sign up free