Sweetness is one of the key traits which is used to characterize a wine.
In wine tasting, sweetness is one of the three basic taste qualities along with bitterness and acidity.
Sweetness in wine is perceived when there is a balance between fruit sugars and acids.
Too much sweetness can be cloying while too little can make a wine seem sour or tart.
What Determines Sweetness of a Wine?
There are many factors that contribute to the level of sweetness in wine including grape variety, ripeness, alcohol level, and residual sugar.
The grape variety is probably the most important factor in determining a wine’s sweetness.
Some grapes, like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Moscato, naturally produce wines that are higher in sugar.
Other grapes, like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, tend to produce wines that are less sweet.
Ripeness also plays a role in sweetness levels. As grapes ripen on the vine they begin to convert their tart acids into sugars.
This process continues until the grapes are fully ripe at which point they will have high sugar levels and low acid levels.
Under-ripe grapes will have more acidity and less sugar while over-ripe grapes can become raisiny and prune-like in flavor with very high sugar levels.
The level of alcohol in wine can also affect its perceived sweetness.
Wines with lower alcohol levels will often taste sweeter than those with higher alcohol levels because our brains perceive ethanol as being bitter.
So, if two wines have the same amount of sugar but one has less alcohol than the other, the sweeter tasting wine will actually be the one with more sugar!
Finally, Residual Sugar (RS) is another significant factor that determines a wine’s sweetness.
RS is the natural sugars that are left behind after fermentation when yeast consumes all of the grape’s sugars to create alcohol.
Most dry wines have no residual sugar but some styles like off-dry Rieslings or semi-sweet dessert wines do contain small amounts of RS.
The level of RS is typically stated on a wine’s label as “grams per liter” or “percent by volume.”
For example, a bottle of Riesling may say it has 9 g/L RS which means there are 9 grams of residual sugar per liter of wine; this would be considered a fairly sweet wine.
Check out a great video by Wine Folly on sweetness in wine, to understand it more –
Sweetness in Still Wines
The sweetness of still wines, with the degree of sweetness ranging from bone dry (no sugar present) to sweet (significant sugar present).
In between these extremes, there are dry, off-dry, and medium-sweet wines.
The perception of sweetness in wine is also affected by other factors such as acidity and alcohol levels.
- Bone-Dry: 0 cal per serving (<1 g/L)
- Dry: 0–6 cal per serving (1–17 g/L)
- Off-Dry: 6–21 cal per serving (17–35 g/L)
- Medium Sweet: 21–72 calories per serving (35–120 g/L)
- Sweet: 72+ cal per serving ( >120 g/L)
Sweetness of Sparkling wines
When it comes to the sweetness of sparkling wines, wine producers, during the final step of winemaking, add sugar (though in small amounts), usually in the form of concentrated grape must.
This is over and above the usual sweetness.
Just as in still wines, the lower the level of residual sugar, the drier the wine will be.
The higher the level of residual sugar, the sweeter the wine will be.
There are four main categories when it comes to sweetness levels in sparkling wines: Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, and Doux.
Also known as zero dosage, brut nature wines are dry with 0-3 g/L of residual sugar.
These wines are very Tart and acidic with high effervescence.
Wines labeled as extra brut have 0-6 g/L of residual sugar. These wines are dry with less effervescence than brut nature wines.
They still maintain a high acidity level but are not as tart as brut nature bubbly.
The most common label you will find on a bottle of sparkling wine is “brut” which means that it has between 0-12 g/L of residual sugar.
These wines are off-dry with moderate acidity and effervescence.
Wines labeled sec or demi-sec have 17-35 g/L of residual sugar and are considered sweet sparkling wines.
They have low acidity levels and moderate effervescence.
The final category is doux which is French for “sweet”.
These dessert-style sparklers have over 50 g/L of residual sugar and are very sweet with low acidity and effervescence
Acidity and Impact on Perceived Sweetness of Wines
The sweetness of wine is determined by the amount of sugar that is present in the grape must, or unfermented grape juice.
The more sugar that is present, the sweeter the wine will be. However, acidity also plays a role in how sweet a wine tastes.
Wines with higher acidity tend to taste less sweet than those with lower acidity levels.
This is because our taste buds are more sensitive to sweetness when there is acidity present.
So, even though a wine may have the same amount of sugar as another wine, it can taste sweeter or less sweet depending on its acidity level.
Some people believe that the sweetness of wine can help to indicate its quality, as sweeter wines are often seen as more complex and full-bodied.
Additionally, knowing the sweetness of wine can help you to pair it with food, as you will be able to choose complementary flavors.