Wineducation: Red Wine 1: sweetness & light

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Types of Red Wine Processing – What Makes Red Wine Dry or Sweet?

Residual sugars is a term that often confuses.

As soon a one mentions sugars, some wine drinkers ‘freak’. Sugar! Never. Sweet wines are horrid. And so they switch off, missing the whole point, hooked on something that they half heard or wrongly thought thirty years ago. Get over snobbish half truths. Sugar is nice. Without any ‘residual sugar’s many wines would be undrinkable.

The modern fashion of drinking wines on their own ‘sans food’ would be far harder to manage without sugar to balance the acid in the wine. And most consumers now consume their wine without food or apetizers so that’s how producers are making their wines: sweeter.

Residual sugars are converted to alcohol during the wine making process depending upon the wine makers intended outcome.

science undermining art?

It is in the method of processing a red that wine determines whether it will result in a sweet wine or a dry wine. Sweet and dry characteristics of wine are at opposite ends of the taste spectrum: defined by the residual sugars left in the wine. Sweeter wines, of course, contain a greater amount of residual sugar than do drier wines.

On one end of the spectrum, if all (within 1 – 2% remaining) the sugar in a wine is converted to alcohol the result is a dry wine. There is a range of sweet and dry wines, but typically wines having from 5 – 30% residual sugar are considered sweet wines. Wines with a 3 – 5% residual sugar range are considered medium or semi-sweet wines.

Note: The fruity taste in wine shouldn’t be confused with sweetness as any fruity red can be a dry or a sweet wine.


Most red grapes produce a more sophisticated/complex wine when compared to white grapes because red grapes stay on the vine longer and have a greater number of influential compounds contained therein.

old world nebbiolo

Also important is the ‘maceration’ period; that’s how long the crushed grape pomace (skins, seeds, stems) remain in contact with the juice. This determines the concentration of active compounds transferred to the juice.

So, varying maceration of a multitudinous variety of slightly differently chemically composed grapes enables the production of a huge variety of delicious types of red wine with glorious spectra of beautiful colour, tannins, and flavours.

There are debates raging presently about the rising sugar levels in grapes in, for example, California. Higher sugar equals higher alcohol. And there are some astounding alcohol levels being reached.

Some say the rise is a direct indicator of global warming (google, Chateau Al Gore). Others maintain it’s due to the direct influence of wine critic, Robert Parker! (google, the Parker Theory). Interestingly, not everyone values or wants high alcohol and this is impacting on that particular wine regions’ output.


March 2012

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