In Wine, Is Sugar Bad?

There is sugar in any bottle of wine. Period. The question is, how much sugar?

In the wine world, we talk about “gateway” wines that people tend to start within the beginning of their wine journeys. When people start drinking wine, they tend to start with sweet wines. Things like: Port, Moscato, and sweet Rieslings. Generally, as a person’s palate progresses, they learn to appreciate things besides sweetness, such as tannins, acid, and complexity.

As wine drinkers learn more, they tend to eschew what is perceived as “beginner” wines, such as those mentioned above. When I am working with a group in a tasting or a class setting, those who have some wine knowledge under their belt tend to make blanket statements such as “I only like dry wines…nothing sweet”. This, I find, is the perfect time to drop some wine knowledge.

What I have learned is that when a beginner/novice wine consumer says “sweet”, they generally mean fruity. And when they say “dry”, they generally mean tannic. I have tested this time and time again. As a general rule, most wines that I pour in my classes are dry. Occasionally there might be a sweet wine or a dessert wine, but generally, I am pouring a flight of dry wines. People frequently exclaim that a CA or a NZ Sauvignon Blanc is sweet…..when what they are actually smelling and tasting is the fruit-forward characteristic of the grape, and perhaps the ripeness of the fruit from the generally warmer climate. People are astounded to realize that this wine is dry. It is, by far, the #1 most common takeaway that people walk away within my classes. The same goes with red wines.

“Fruitier” grapes are commonly thought to be “sweet”. An Argentinian Malbec is a perfect example. In contrast, when I pour a tannic wine (say a Cabernet Sauvignon), they think THIS is the dry wine. When I tell them they are both dry, they get a bit confused. This is another perfect time to drop some wine knowledge. I explain to students that tannins are naturally occurring in the skins, stems, and seeds of grapes. And that tannins give a drying sensation in your mouth. How can a beginner truly understand the feeling of tannins? Steep a cup of tea with a teabag. Wring out the teabag. Stick the tea bag in your mouth and bite down. THIS, my friends, is tannins. Then when they go back to the red wines, they can understand and feel that same drying sensation with the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Back to sugar. So how do some wines have more sugar than others? It’s all about residual sugar (RS).  Here is my elementary explanation about how grape juice becomes wine:

1. Insert grapes/grape juice in tank

2. Add yeast (what I call Pac-Mans) to the juice

3. The Pac-Mans eat sugar (in the grape juice) and multiply, creating CO2 and alcohol

4. Once the Pac-Mans eat all the sugar, the fermentation is done and the Pac-Mans die

5. IF you want to create a wine with RS, you stop the fermentation BEFORE the Pac-Mans finish eating all of the sugar, thus leaving some sugar in the wine.

6. You do this by cooling the temperature of the tank. Alcohol will not ferment if the liquid is too cool.

So what constitutes a dry wine vs a sweet wine? See my chart below. Note that most all table wine falls in the bone dry/dry categories. The main exception is domestic, commercially produced wines in which sub-par fruit is used. To make up for that, they tend to increase the RS (12-15 g/L as a loose range) to mask the shitty grapes.

Bone Dry <1g/L RS

Dry 1-10 g/L RS

Off-Dry 10-35 g/L RS

Sweet 35-120 g/L RS

Very Sweet/Luscious > 120g/l RS

*I pulled these numbers from WineFolly and they seem to be in line with the levels I recall from my WSET studies.

Ok, so what does the term “low sugar” mean? In my opinion, this is mostly a marketing term. It gives an indication to the consumer that this wine falls in the low range of dry, or might even sit in the bone dry category.  Personally I don’t count my calories or sugar intake when it comes to wine. I’m in the biz, I taste (and generally spit) a lot of wine, and the level of sugar (from a nutritional standpoint) doesn’t appeal or apply to me. However, someone watching what they eat/drink or counting sugar intake, might be interested in that term and might seek it out in a wine. The key piece to remember is that a term like “low sugar” is not regulated. Someone at 1g/L might say their wine is “low sugar” whereas someone who makes a wine at 9g/L might call their wine “low sugar”. And the consumer won’t know the difference unless they seek out the tech sheet to get the details.

I recently interviewed Amanda Scott, who is the founder of Thomson & Scott, a line of Champagne and Prosecco that bills itself as ultra low sugar, vegan, and organic. Amanda is leading the “transparency in wine” movement by creating a company that asks consumers to demand what’s in their bottles. In fact, she is the (self-proclaimed) first person in the industry to publicly call out for it. Amanda thinks it is a no-brainer and is shocking that in 2019 we have no idea what is in our wine bottle. I tend to agree!

Thomson & Scott produces top-quality Champagne and Prosecco with as little intervention as possible in the production process and highlights its vegan and organic credentials. According to Amanda, wine labeling is sparse in its detail and misleading in its description. Currently, the wine industry doesn’t have to say what goes into making the products we drink. Amanda wants to change that. She was raised on a vegetarian, no sugar diet by her health-conscious mother, and has always had a keen interest in what’s in her food.

Amanda feels that because her organic Prosecco is of such beautiful quality, to begin with, less sugar is needed to balance off the acidity. It is possible to make a zero-dosage (no added sugar) Prosecco; but, since Prosecco traditionally has a certain fruit-forward, easy-drinking quality that fans have come to expect in its flavor profile, 7g/L felt like exactly the right amount. This is roughly half of what many Proseccos come in at. In their Champagne portfolio, they do have a zero-dosage option.

I also asked Amanda a tough question about her use of the word “skinny” in her branding:

Brianne: Talk to me about the use of the word “skinny” in marketing and on the label. Bethenny Frankel has been very successful with that word being central to her Skinnygirl brand. However, our society is moving to a place of more inclusivity and body positivity, and the use of words like “skinny” can sometimes be frowned upon. Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you think marketing this product to the US market will be different than marketing it to the UK market?

Amanda: “Skinny” was used in our case in the same way as Skinny Cappuccino or Skinny jeans – in a fashion sense about the item in question, not about any individual. To help amplify our message in a hugely male dominated, often old-fashioned, financially-focused industry, I knew I needed to be provocative. Using the term “skinny” has been a vehicle for me to put the spotlight on sugar added to wine. Pure and simple. Our brand is Thomson & Scott. Marketing in each respective country will always be different and deeply nuanced. That said, London brands have a history of trend-building internationally, and so our core values remain regardless. The US market in many ways is culturally ahead on understanding that wine can be high quality and yet also fun. That’s certainly part of our broader mission, and something we in the old wine world can take inspiration from.

There you have it! In conclusion, I do not frown upon the use of terms such as “skinny” and “low sugar”. The terms are not regulated and companies/brands are able to use them as they see fit in order to reach their target consumer. Two words such as “low sugar” can help a consumer make a decision quickly and efficiently. I also appreciate the ability to use language that helps reach your target market and that helps connect your brand to the product at hand. The key here is that people not abuse this freedom. What we don’t want is to end up with mass produced, commercial wines claiming all sorts of health benefits and what not. As an industry, we have to hold ourselves to higher standards and call out when our peers are using language to manipulate the consumer’s perception of what exactly is in the bottle.

I did have the opportunity to try the Thomson & Scott wines at a press event in Los Angeles in March. The Prosecco retails for $24.99, while the Champagne comes in at $49.99. Both lovely wines and I did notice a marked dryness, especially with the Prosecco, which is generally too sweet for my taste. Bravo Amanda. May the “transparency in wine” movement progress far and wide!

What are your thoughts on low sugar wines? And on transparency in wine labeling?