We're often asked by customers if a particular wine is sweet or dry, or how to tell if a wine is sweet or dry. It's a common question, but not always an easy answer.
Wine sweetness (or dryness) is determined not only by the amount of sugar in a wine, but also by acidity, alcohol content, and the presence of compounds called tannins.
During the process of fermentation, sugars from wine grapes are broken down and converted by yeast into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Grapes accumulate sugars as they grow on the grapevine through the translocation of sucrose molecules that are produced by photosynthesis from the leaves. During ripening the sucrose molecules are separated by the enzyme invertase into glucose and fructose. By the time of harvest, between 15 and 25% of the grape will be composed of simple sugars.
Very high sugar content will effectively kill the yeast once a certain (high) alcohol content is reached. For these reasons, no wine is ever fermented completely "dry" (meaning without any residual). Sugar's role in dictating the final alcohol content of the wine (and such its resulting body and "mouth-feel") sometimes encourages winemakers to add sugar (usually sucrose) during winemaking in a process known as chapatalization solely in order to boost the alcohol content – chaptalization does not increase the sweetness of a wine.
Humans are least sensitive to the taste of sweetness (in contrast to sensitivity to bitterness or sourness) with the majority of the population being able to detect sugar or "sweetness" in wines between 1% and 2.5% residual sugar. Additionally, other components of wine such as acidity and tannins can mask the perception of sugar in the wine.
According to a New York Times article written in 2017, the United States Department of Agriculture stated that a five-ounce glass of red table wine typically contains about 0.9 grams of total sugar, while a glass of chardonnay contains about 1.4 grams. A sweet dessert wine, typically served in a smaller two- to three-ounce glass, contains as much as 7 grams of sugar. Depending on where the wine was made, the total may include added sugar or sugar from unfermented grape juice, along with the sugar that occurs naturally in the grapes.
Often, depending on how sensitive our personal tastebuds are, a wine may taste sweeter to you than it does to me, even though it is deemed "dry". This is due to the degree of acid, alcohol and tannins present in the wine. A "perceived" sweetness is common due to comparing one grape variety over another for this very reason.
Alberta Liquour Industry did away with actual Sweetness Codes many years ago. They are also not standarized across Canada, so if you go into an LCBO in Ontario they will refer to a dry wine as a "0" wheras our old code was "1", for example. The codes were acually based on residual sugar content in a bottle of wine.
At Aligra, we have chosed to include the old style Alberta sweetness codes (SC) numbers on our shelves and over the years, customers have told us they appreciate this. Our staff are also able to help determine the sweetness level in most wines.
Here is an example of what to expect in Sweetness Codes for Wine:
SC 1 DRY Less than 5 grams sugar per litre - eg Reds - Bordeaux wines, Chianti, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Malbec etc.
Whites - Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc, Sparkling WInes labelled "Brut"
SC 2 SEMI DRY 6-24 grams sugar per litre - Whites - some Pinot Gris, Gerwurstraminer, Riesling, Torrontes
Reds - some California red blends
SC 3-7 SWEET 25-79 grams sugar per litre - Moscatos, German Rieslings labelled "Spatlese or Kabinett", Sparkling Wines labelled
"Doux" we even have a Sweet Red Selection shelf in our store!
SC 8 - 20 VERY SWEET Greater than 80 grams sugar per liter - Ice Wines, Sauternes, Toakaji Aszu, Port and Cream Sherry
So, whether you enjoy your wines dry, sweet or inbetween, this should help you find them more easily!