How Much Sugar is In Wine?

Hello, bonjour, and welcome to your new Bonner Private Wines video. Today I want to discuss a question or maybe a myth that many people believe is true, that wine or maybe sweet wine in particular, is made using the addition of sugar from another source than grapes, cane sugar, beet root or corn sugar or else. Is that true?

Is this a reality in the wine world or just a conspiracy theory? Let's explain. 


Is Sugar Added to Wine? The General Rule 

As most things in life, it's not a yes or no answer, as most things in wine. It's not complicated, but things depend on other things. So let's explain. The huge majority of wines all around the world, New world or old worlds alike are made without any addition of any sort of external source of sugar.

They’re made using simply the natural sugar content found in the grapes. Nothing else. Converting sugar into alcohol to make our favorite alcoholic beverage. That's what wine is. Fermented grape juice. Now a lot of other beverages use sugar additions, it's completely unregulated; sodas, fruit juices, etc. In that case, manufacturers just need to tell you that they've used added sugar and how much of it.

But it's very strictly regulated in wine. So winemakers are not allowed to add sugar, so they don't. And there are a couple of exceptions that we'll discuss in a minute. But overall, you can safely assume that wine is made without an external source of sugar. Why is that? Well, essentially because regulators have safely assumed for a long time now that turning water into wine by adding sugar into grape juice or whatever, well, is a fraud, a way of misleading consumers that is too easy to implement, to let it happen.

So regulations on that front really started in Europe first around the beginning of the 20th century, obviously, because there it was very strongly an everyday beverage that a lot of people had been drinking for centuries and centuries everyday. So during the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of the mass production of sugar cane from beetroot or cane, some wine producers had taken the bad habit of adding sugar to their wine or diluting with water and compensating with sugar, that sort of disgusting things.

So in the early 20th century, in 1905, in France in particular, regulators said, stop this, you can't use sugar and add it to your wine. That's how it happened. It began being strictly regulated in the new world countries. Such regulations came much later, but they are firmly in place now because even in America, even famously, Americans love sugar. So I've heard winemakers, regulators and consumers alike know that adding sugar to wine is not the best way to make good wine.

So as a rule of thumb, therefore, it is a myth that sugar is added to wine. But what are the exceptions then? There are a few. 


Small Sugar Additions in Cool Climates or Cold Vintages 

In the northernmost countries of the European Union. Small additions of sugar are often allowed to compensate for the cold growing conditions, like in Germany, for example. Being such a cool climate, it's sometimes difficult in certain areas to naturally obtain a high enough alcohol level for the wines to be balanced.

So producers are allowed to raise the strength of their wines by adding a little sugar. But we're talking relatively small amounts here. For example, they can raise a wine that would have ended up at 11.5 alcohol up to 12% or 12.5%. They're not entirely changing the profile of the wine, not really cheating per say, just enhancing a little the alcohol content to make it more balanced, less watery and less acidic as well, compensating really for the cold weather.

Needless to say that the sugar can only be added before or during fermentation, so all the sugar gets fermented. In that case, it's added during the fermentation process so yeast can process it. Same goes in Europe for some areas that sometimes have a very cold vintage, like in Bordeaux and Burgundy. Generally it's forbidden to add any sort of sugar in those areas.

But in a very cold vintage, even the authorities find that all wines that year would really be bad at very low natural alcohol levels. Say if wines would barely reach 12% alcohol that year. Well, wine regulators occasionally allow for small sugar additions for those specific vintages only as exceptions to level up the vintage variations between the worst vintages and the good vintages.

That's your worst case scenario vintage. But needless to say that with climate change, those vintage exceptions are very rare. Now and they really use sugar additions in all other southern European countries, like in Italy, Spain or Greece, well the addition of sugar, called chaptalization process (named after the French scientist from history called Jean Antoine Chaptal, who invented this process), is strictly prohibited in Southern Europe, same in California or Australia.

Those warm regions don't need to use sugar to make strong enough wines unless they're trying to cheat. So it's not allowed. They're similar to Europe, however, in cooler areas that are in America that are just a little too cold sometimes, like in Oregon or Washington. Well, small additions of sugar are occasionally allowed and used. 


How is Sweet Wine Made? 

And if you can't add sugar to wine, how do you make sweet wine then?

It is a fair question, isn't it? Where sweet wines are made by stopping the fermentation before all the natural sugars in the grape juice are fermented. So the wine dries up during the fermentation and you just stop fermentation, so you get some residual sugars. You simply don't allow yeast to eat up all the sugars, hence retaining some natural residual sweetness.

That's how you make sweet wine. Not by adding sugar. There is, however, a workaround sometimes used by some wineries, while the addition of sugar from other sources than grape, beetroot and so on are forbidden by law, it is generally allowed to add grape juice concentrate to wine. So some wineries may buy barrels of grape juice concentrates or sort of concentrated grape juice and sweeten their wine that way.

This is, however, a generally only used for really cheap bulk wine or some affordable mass production brands. When you buy a cheap wine that's a little sweet or very sweet wine at that, especially from very generic appellations. It's a possibility that they may have used some grape concentrate made to sweeten the quality appellation. So don't allow this practice at all to protect their reputation.

It's very rare in some established appellations, especially in Europe or some or many like Napa Valley, California. It's forbidden entirely, so they don't. 


Sweetening Sparkling Wine

Our last exception here is for sweetening, or at least balancing out sparkling wine, champagnes and other sparkling see a little addition of sweet sirup called the liquor. The dosage in from French and the standard dosing liquor sweetening liquor after the fermentation in the bottle about sparkling for example, the most sold sweetness level for sparkling wines contains between four and 12 grams per liter of sugar that is added before release.

Not quite to make the wine taste sweet Brut is a pretty dry sparkling style, but just to soften up the wine a little, otherwise it would be a little too harsh because those wines are acidic. It's done that way because it would be impossible to stop the fermentation of all the sugars by the yeasts inside, though, your bottle of sparkling wine—bottle of sparkling wine, where do I have one? Right here. Yeah—They ferment the wine inside the bottle. They couldn't just stop the yeast from eating up all the sugars in the bottle. So they have to let the wine become totally dry and then add just a tiny bit of liquor, sweet liqueur before releasing and selling you the wine. That is another exception.

And it's done that way because there's no other way of doing it. So, yes, as a conclusion, wine is a natural product. Then it has been protected as such for decades now. But yes, to allow for greater quality overall and better consistency as well. There are circumstances, a few circumstances strictly regulated exceptions, for which winemakers have to compensate for what nature can't provide a very cold vintage, an area that is simply too cold to make balanced good wines.

Yeah, they have to use small additions of sugar to deliver the best possible drink out of grape juice. That's what you need to know about the additions of sugar. I hope you enjoyed the video. Thanks for watching and I will see you soon in the wonderful world of vino.

Bonner Private Wine Partnership