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Feb 3, 2007 02:05 PM

Sugar content of red wines?

I'm just curious about a comment my sister-in-law made a short time was regarding the sugar content of red wines and how she tries to stick with Chiantis and other Italian red wines because they are less sugary than, say, a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Zinfandel. Can anyone comment on this, please? Or do all red grapes pretty much have the same amount of sugar? If they are left on the vine longer, to ME, that would mean they have a higher sugar content; that's what I thought I'd learned somewhere. Thanks, as always.

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  1. Grapes are harvested at different levels of sugar content, but that natual grape sugar is fermented into alcohol. There is no real difference in the level of residual sugar between a Caliofrnia Cabernet Sauvignon and an Italian Chianti. A dry red wine is a dry red wine.

    Wines WITH residual sugar -- such as a Porto -- are, of course, sweet. But "dry" (the opposite of "sweet") means no residual sugar.

    It seems to me that your sister-in-law is confusing "fruit" with "sweetness." This is true in fresh fruit -- the fruity flavor develops along with the natural sugar. (An unripe piece of fruit also does not taste very "fruity.") But in ripe grapes, as I say, the sugar is fermented to alcohol and is, thus, no longer present.

    California Cabernets and, especially, Zinfandels will retain significantly more fruit flavor than a Chianti. But there is no significant extra sugar in a Cab or a Zin*.

    *Late harvest Zins are an exception, but generally te level of residual sugar is clearly notedon the label. Higher alcohol Zinfandels, say 15%+, may also be an exception, as a little residual grape sugar left in the wine will "mask" the "heat" of the higher alcohol.

    5 Replies
    1. re: zin1953

      I've noticed that a great many people do 'confuse' fruitiness with sweetness when they describe (especially) red wine. In our business, we hear this all the time. It is interesting, though, that many of them are very inisistant that what they are tasting is SWEET. I'm not sure whether that is due to palate sensitivites, frames of reference, of simple lack of 'sophistication' (and I don't mean that condescendingly at all) in palate or description ability. Do you have an opinion on that?

      1. re: Midlife

        Seems like for most people it takes some effort to learn to distinguish fruitiness and sweetness as separate elements.

        I've often had people insist that bone-dry Alsatian gew├╝rztraminer or muscat was sweet.

        1. re: Midlife

          It's human nature.

          Fresh fruit is both fruity-tasting and sweet. You can't have one without the other. Therefore, if a person tastes a wine with lots of fruit, it is a natural assumption to this "fruit = sweet," based upon their previous experience -- starting as a child -- that fresh fruit is sweet.

          The use of stainless steel for fermentation, as well as temperature control, has resulted in much fruitier-tasting wines today -- and over the last, say, 30 years -- than existed previously.

          Dry wines -- red or white -- contain less than 0.2% residual sugar (r.s.). IIRC, the human palate *generally* "cuts out" at about 0.5%. Above that figure, one can detect sugar. Between 0.2-0.5% r.s., the human palate can detect "a difference," but generally that difference is one of "softness" not "sweetness" (i.e.: the wine [or distilled water] feels "rounder" on the palate) compared to a wine [or distilled water] that is 0.0% r.s.).

          1. re: zin1953

            I suppose sweetness is quite relative to the indvidual palate too. My wife has an extreme sensitivity to sweet tastes..... much more so than I do..... and she also finds certain fruity reds to be 'sweet' when I wouldn't describe it that way.

            1. re: Midlife

              The ability to perceive sweetness is in deed relative -- some are more sensitive that others. As I said above, most people's palates have a hard tome below 0.05%. IIRC, the folks at UC Davis found someone that can detect sweetness down to 0.02%

      2. In addition to being fruitier, California wines are often heavily oaked, which can also contribute to an illusion of sweetness.

        1. Thanks, everyone...very interesting responses!