We Need to Talk About the Important Role of Sugar in Wine | Wine Enthusiast
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We Need to Talk About the Important Role of Sugar in Wine

Low- and no-sugar wines, often marketed with a “better for you” positioning, aim to appeal to health-conscious wine lovers. Consumption of these wines can be tied to other movements, too, including keto, low-carb, organic and vegan diets.

While almost every dry wine on the market is low in residual sugar, the wines that are labeled and marketed as low- or no-sugar are deliberately produced from vineyard to bottle with the aim of lowering the amount of sugar, carbohydrates and alcohol in each serving.

The number of brands devoted to this mission seems to increase exponentially with each passing month, but it wasn’t always this way. Whether the trend was forecast by a savvy marketing team or developed in response to an observed need, low-sugar wines took time to bring to market.

“We started to hear about a trend towards lower alcohol when we were attending ProWein in 2019,” says Heidi Scheid, executive vice president of Scheid Family Wines, which produces Sunny With a Chance of Flowers. The brand offers five varieties, with no sugar and 85 calories per glass.

“Personally, I was invested because I was always on the hunt for lower alcohol wines,” she says. “I needed a weekday wine that I could drink a few glasses of and still get up at the crack of dawn for a run. So it became a topic at our internal product innovation meetings at first. The zero-sugar part of Sunny was actually more of a hunch.”

And yet, sugar plays a significant role in wine production, regardless of whether the finished pour is sweet or dry or somewhere in between. To understand low-sugar wines, then, you have to dig into how they’re made and what actually ends up in your glass.

Sugar’s Important Role in Wine

Without sugar, there would be no wine.

It’s often stated that all wine begins in the vineyard, and so is the case for sugar in wine. As grapes ripen, photosynthesis breaks down sucrose in leaves into glucose and fructose, and transfers it to the berries. While sugar is rising within the grapes, acids and pH levels also change. The more sunlight and daytime heat grapes receive, the faster they will ripen.

The fermentation process entails yeast consuming the naturally occurring sugar in grapes and producing ethanol and carbon dioxide as a result. Yeast will continue to transform sugar into this type of alcohol until the sugar is completely digested or the yeast is destroyed or removed—the latter results in wine with residual sugar.

Simply put, the more sugar present in the grape, the higher potential for sugar or alcohol in the finished wine.

Residual sugar (RS) refers to the amount of sugar left in wine after fermentation. Measured in grams per liter (g/L), it is an indication of a wine’s sweetness. While European Union regulations stipulate that dry wine contains less than 4 g/L RS, there are no such requirements in the United States.

Sometimes, RS is linked to alcohol level. This is largely the case in wines that are produced using traditional methods. Based on the principle of fermentation, it should hold true that a wine high in residual sugar will have lower alcohol and vice versa.

For example, German Riesling Kabinett with 45 g/L RS may have 8% alcohol by volume (abv), and a Moscato d’Asti with 120 g/L RS may have only 5% abv. But, a higher alcohol wine, such as Napa Cab, can have 14.5% abv and just 1.5 g/L RS.

To minimize naturally occurring sugars for low- and no-sugar wines, winemakers use viticultural techniques such as canopy management, or the placement or trimming of leaves to shade or expose the grapes to sun. Daytime shade and cooler nighttime temperatures help to preserve acidity in grapes and keep sugar levels from getting too high.

“We carefully prune the vines to maximize leaf protection from the hot summer sun,” says David Joeky, senior winemaker for Casella Family Brands who oversees production on Yellow Tail Pure Bright. “This protects the grapes and slows [sugar] development while promoting fruit flavor and intensity. We pick the grapes at precisely the right time to maximize brightness and acidity, and they are harvested in the cool of the night.”

Clarifying the Claims

Many brands in the “better for you” space make questionable marketing claims. One of the most significant of these statements is “no added sugar,” which implies that wine is, in general, made with additional sugar.

This is largely not the case for most dry wines, though there are exceptions. Some mass-produced wines may have added sugar to make the wine sweeter, and sugar can also be introduced before or during fermentation to reach a higher alcohol level in a process called chaptalization. This technique can be utilized in some cool-weather wine regions in which grapes ripen at a slower pace and winemakers need to supplement the natural sugar present.

Additionally, wine labels may not always inform consumers if the wine is sweet.

“There are a lot of consumers who partake in low-sugar diets or limit sugar intake due to health issues,” says Scheid. “Of course, there are many wines that are zero sugar, but nowhere does it say that on the label, so consumers don’t know.”

The new low- and no-sugar brands proudly wear their numbers on their labels.

There are a lot of consumers who partake in low-sugar diets or limit sugar intake due to health issues. Of course, there are many wines that are zero sugar, but nowhere does it say that on the label, so consumers don’t know. —Heidi Scheid, executive vice president, Scheid Family Wines

“Crafting Yellow Tail Pure Bright took time and effort as we experimented with different winemaking techniques to perfect the alcohol reduction process,” says Joeky. “A key aspect of the winemaking process is a specific type of filtration that protects and concentrates all the flavors and aromas in the wine. We utilize specific filtration and other similar techniques incorporated with blending to deliver vibrant and full-flavored wines, with the added benefit of reduced calories.”

Sunny With a Chance of Flowers uses precise harvesting and vinification techniques to produce its zero sugar wines, coupled with advanced winemaking techniques to lower total alcohol.

“We harvest the fruit for Sunny at peak maturity and full phenolic ripeness from our estate vineyards just as we would a regular alcohol wine,” says Scheid. “The grapes are brought to our estate winery, crushed and fermented to dryness. That’s how we get to zero sugar—we continue fermentation until there is no residual sugar remaining. For the alcohol removal, we use a proprietary process based on reverse osmosis. During this process, alcohol is gently and gradually pulled from the wine, leaving behind a reduced-alcohol product.”

Supermodel Christie Brinkley, coproprietor of Bellissima, produces Zero Sugar Sparkling White and Zero Sugar Sparkling Rosé from Northern Italy in addition to the brand’s traditional Prosecco. The wines are also certified organic and vegan.

“I wanted to make sure that my line of Bellissima wines included an option for everyone,” says Brinkley.

“There are so many people out there that are following a low-sugar or low-carb diet, such as the keto diet. Having zero-sugar options allows anyone to enjoy my wine… All of our zero-sugar wines are premium quality with no compromises on taste.”

Another brand offering low-sugar selections is Kind of Wild, a direct-to-consumer line of organic and vegan wines.

“Feedback showed that organic and vegan were higher priority to our customers than sugar and alcohol levels,” says cofounder Jordan Sager. “So, for our brand, we see sugar and alcohol as important, but perhaps secondary benefits while our organic and vegan certifications are primary.”

“We also believe the wines should align with one’s lifestyle of moderation,” he adds. “That is why we want our wines to be in the 11–13% abv range instead of 14% plus, and why we look for balanced wines that have less than 0.5 grams of sugar per 5-ounce glass.”

As in all wines, balance is key, and so is alignment with your personal palate. If lower sugar is important, try some options and find the wine you like best. After all, enjoying wine is one of life’s sweetest pleasures.