We need to talk about the important role of sugar in wine

Low-sugar and sugar-free wines, often marketed with a “better for you” positioning, aim to appeal to health-conscious wine lovers. Drinking these wines may also be linked to other movements, including keto, low-carb, organic, and vegan diets.

While almost all dry wines on the market are low in residual sugar, wines labeled and marketed as low or no sugar are deliberately produced from the vineyard to the bottle with the aim of reducing the amount of sugar, carbohydrates and alcohol. in every wine. portion.

The number of brands dedicated to this mission seems to grow exponentially with each passing month, but it hasn’t always been that way. Whether the trend was foreseen by a savvy marketing team or developed in response to an observed need, low-sugar wines have been slow to hit the market.

“We started hearing about a trend to cut back on alcohol when we were attending ProWein in 2019,” says Heidi Scheid, Executive Vice President of Scheid family wineswho produces Sunny with a chance of flowers. The brand offers five varieties, sugar-free and 85 calories per glass.

“Personally, I was invested because I was always on the lookout for less alcoholic wines,” she says. “I needed a weekday wine that I could have a few drinks and get up at dawn to go for a run, so it became a topic during our internal product innovation meetings early on. Sunny’s sugar-free portion was actually more of a hunch.

And yet, sugar plays an important role in the production of wine, whether the final pour is sweet or dry or somewhere in between. To understand low-sugar wines, then, you need to understand how they’re made and what actually ends up in your glass.

The important role of sugar in wine

Without sugar, there would be no wine.

It is often said that all wine begins in the vine, and so does sugar in wine. As the grapes ripen, photosynthesis breaks down the sucrose in the leaves into glucose and fructose and transfers it to the berries. As sugar increases in grapes, acids and pH levels also change. The more sun and heat the grapes receive during the day, the faster they will ripen.

The fermentation process involves yeast consuming the sugar naturally present in grapes and thus producing ethanol and carbon dioxide. The yeast will continue to convert the sugar into this type of alcohol until the sugar is completely digested or the yeast is destroyed or eliminated, resulting in a wine with residual sugar.

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

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

Sometimes RS is related to alcohol level. This is largely the case for wines made using traditional methods. Based on the principle of fermentation, it should be true that a wine high in residual sugar will have less alcohol and vice versa.

For example, a 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 only have 5% abv. But, a more alcoholic wine, like Napa Cab, can have 14.5% alcohol and only 1.5 g/L RS.

To minimize natural sugars for low-sugar and sugar-free wines, winemakers use viticultural techniques such as canopy management, or placement or trimming of leaves to shade or expose grapes to sunlight. Daytime shade and cooler nighttime temperatures help preserve the acidity of the grapes and keep sugar levels from getting too high.

“We prune the vines carefully to maximize leaf protection from the hot summer sun,” says David Joeky, lead winemaker for Casella family brands who supervises the production on Brilliant Pure Yellow Tail. “It protects the grapes and slows down [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.

Clarification of claims

Many brands in the “better for you” space make questionable marketing claims. One of the most significant of these claims 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, although there are exceptions. Some mass-produced wines may contain added sugar to make the wine sweeter, and sugar may also be introduced before or during fermentation to achieve higher alcohol content in a process called chaptalization. This technique can be used in some cooler weather wine regions where grapes ripen at a slower rate and winemakers need to supplement the natural sugar present.

Also, wine labels do not always tell consumers if the wine is sweet.

“There are many consumers who participate in low-sugar diets or limit their sugar intake due to health issues,” Scheid says. “Of course, there are many sugar-free wines, but it doesn’t say that anywhere on the label, so consumers don’t know that.”

New low-sugar and sugar-free brands proudly carry their number on their labels.

Many consumers follow a low-sugar diet or limit their sugar intake due to health concerns. Sure, there are plenty of sugar-free wines out there, but it’s not listed anywhere on the label, so consumers don’t know that. —Heidi Scheid, Executive Vice President, Scheid Family Wines

“Making 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 of the wine. We use specific filtration and other similar techniques incorporated into the blend to produce wines that are vibrant and full of flavor, with the added benefit of reduced calories.

Sunny With a Chance of Flowers uses precise harvesting and winemaking techniques to produce its sugar-free wines, combined with advanced winemaking techniques to reduce total alcohol.

“We harvest the fruit for Sunny at full ripeness and full phenolic maturity from our estate vineyards, just like we would a regular liquor wine,” Scheid says. “The grapes are brought to the cellar of our estate, crushed and fermented dry. This is how we get to zero sugar – we continue fermenting until there is no residual sugar left. For the elimination of alcohol, we use an exclusive process based on reverse osmosis. During this process, the alcohol is gently and gradually extracted from the wine, leaving behind a product with reduced alcohol content.

Model Christie Brinkley, co-owner of Bellissimeproduct Zero Sparkling White Sugar and Sugar-free sparkling rosé from northern Italy in addition to the tradition of the brand Prosecco. The wines are also certified organic and vegan.

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

“There are so many people on low sugar or low carb diets like the keto diet. Having sugar free options allows anyone to enjoy my wine… All of our sugar free wines are premium quality without compromise on taste.

Another brand offering low sugar selections is kind of savagea direct line to the consumer of organic and vegan wines.

“Feedback showed that organic and vegan were a higher priority for our customers than sugar and alcohol levels,” says co-founder 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 that wines should align with a moderate lifestyle,” he adds. “That’s why we want our wines to be in the 11-13% abv range instead of 14% plus, and why we look for balanced wines with less than 0.5 grams of sugar per 5-ounce glass.”

As with all wines, balance is key, as is alignment with your personal palate. If low sugar is important, try a few options and find your favorite wine. After all, tasting wine is one of life’s sweetest pleasures.

Rachel J. Bradford