Inquiring Winemaker


Residual Sugar-- 'How Sweet It Is'

January 2008
by Tim Patterson
Several decades back, before most of you could drink wine legally, before half of you were born, comedian Jackie Gleason built a career around the catchphrase, "How sweet it is," (revived for the title of his 1966 album, released by Columbia Records, at right) a pithy celebration of someone else's bad fortune. Now if that's too dated, maybe you remember James Taylor singing the same words, in a decidedly more upbeat vein, savoring how lucky he was "to be loved by you." But these days, when the wine world talks about high-end, New World reds, the phrase morphs into a question: "How sweet is it?"

There is a widespread hunch among wine writers and winemakers that a lot of New World reds, especially from Australia and California, contain a pinch or two of residual sugar, even if they're marketed as dry wines. Not a lot of sugar, mind you, not Trockenbeerenauslese-level sugar, just enough to turbo-charge the fruitiness and help mask the underlying tannins. It's no secret that a fraction of fructose is a common winemaking strategy within the ranks of popular mass-market brands, with or without critters on the labels; but the more salacious speculation goes on to suggest a trend toward Yellowtail-ization of a lot of $50 and $100 bottles favored by the reigning critics.

The question really breaks down into two parts. First, how many highly rated, high-priced, high-profile reds really do put a little sugar in your bowl? (A little Bessie Smith joke there, and now I'll quit.) And second, if many of them do, so what? Why is this a problem? Is it a moral failing, or somehow cheating? I mean, if red grapes and sugar go together so well in Port, Mavrodaphne and Banyuls, why is the combo so scandalous in an Amador Zinfandel or a Napa Cabernet?

You won't find it on the label

Getting good, hard information on this topic isn't easy. Unlike alcohol levels, residual sugar information isn't required on wine labels--the logic here, I guess, being that sugar can only be good for you, whereas alcohol is a problem. Residual sugar numbers don't often show up in the tech sheets for red wines. And as longtime wine analyst/consultant Lisa Van de Water of Vinotec Napa notes, "It's not a topic winemakers generally want to discuss with writers. They don't always even share that information with their marketing departments."

The TTB does not routinely or systematically test for sugar, in part at least because "dry" has no legal definition. Winemakers have their personal rules of thumb, often around no more than 2 grams per liter. In Germany, 4 grams per liter is defined as dry, although a wine can go as high as 9 grams if balanced with sufficient acidity; and in practice here, many winemakers gravitate toward the same "seems dry because of the balance" approach.

On the other hand, lab enologists like John Katchmer of Vinquiry hold to a stricter standard, 1 gram per liter, since anything higher than that can lead to microbial stability issues. You may think the wine is dry, but your local Brettanomyces may not.

This range of definitional ambiguity is exactly the zone these allegedly sweetish reds inhabit--3 or 4 or 5 grams per liter, or .3-.5%, enough to make an impression on the palate but not quite enough to register directly with most drinkers as "Golly, there's some sugar in here."

For this article, editor Jim Gordon and I considered buying a cross-section of bottles off the shelf and sending them to the lab--but then realized we would spend the magazine's annual budget to get a good sample. So instead, I talked with a number of people who have had a lot of wines go past their palates and their testing equipment over the years.

My first stop was Leo McCloskey at Enologix in Santa Rosa, Calif., which advises an all-star roster of ultra-premium clients on how the makeup of their wines compares with that of the leaders in the marketplace and on critics' scorecards. If anybody has numbers in his database on RS, I thought, it has to be Leo. And of course, he does, and of course, he isn't about to share that information, since he wants to stay profitable in a very confidential business.

But without naming names, McCloskey verified that there is something happening here. "Poke into sugar," he says, "and you'll find that a lot of famous, expensive wines contain much more sugar than they did 10 years ago. You can find the same levels in Cabernet that you found in Chardonnay 15 years ago."

Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay was phenomenally successful in the early 1990s, with a "secret ingredient" that turned out to be a bit of aromatic white wine and a bit of sugar. Large numbers of California Chardonnays followed suit--alongside the suits that followed between K-J and its then-winemaker, Jed Steele. This trend, McCloskey says, worked for a while, but eventually it led to the commoditization of Chardonnay, since cheaper wines could seem just as "rich" as more expensive, handcrafted brands through the miracle of fructose.

Now McCloskey sees it happening with reds--in winery practices, consumer preferences and critical approval. As an example, he noted that in the past 12 months, the market volume of American Syrah rated at 90 points or better by major critics came to only 18,000 cases--while 90-plus Australian Shiraz amounted to a quarter million cases. He thinks part of the story here is the appeal of sugar, not inherent wine intensity.

Jeff McCord, vice president for research and technical sales at StaVin and a veteran wine analyst, agrees there are a lot of slightly sweet ones out there. Researcher Jim Kennedy at Oregon State is tempted to place the same bet, citing the usefulness of low levels of sugar in covering up tannin astringency in high-extract wines. Being a good scientist, and not knowing for sure, he's collecting data.

RS: playing with fire

The advantages of a soupçon of sweetness are evident: heightening fruitiness and hiding tannin, making a wine simultaneously bigger and smoother. But aside from altering the flavor profile, sticking with some sugar is also asking for trouble, since sugar has a destabilizing influence on a bottle of wine. Unchecked and untreated, it can lead to refermentation and microbial spoilage and require major interventions--sterile filtration, Velcorin, and so on.

Because of all the trouble sugar causes, both Lisa Van de Water and John Katchmer, with a heap of experience diagnosing and fixing troubled liquid assets, think it's uncommon for high-end producers to in tentionally leave or put sugar in their wines. For lower- and mid-priced wines, sugar can be a strategic sweetener; but for the high-end varieties, they say, it's more likely to be the unfortunate leftover from an incomplete fermentation--which doesn't mean it's unheard of.

With the current rage for high levels of sugar/alcohol, stuck and slightly stuck fermentations are not exactly a rarity. Similarly, native yeast fermentations, increasingly popular, can easily run out of steam near the end. In both cases, even assuming the main work is being done by a relatively strong Saccharomyces yeast strain, that last little bit of Brix can be a bear, subject to the vagaries of temperature, nutrient supply and other factors.

If the darn thing won't go dry, and it tastes pretty good as it is, it may be easier to live with it than force it to completion. Several strategies are available to ensure stability, including sterile membrane filtration and the ultimate microbe slayer, Velcorin--another topic winemakers don't like to talk about. For those who like to ride bareback, there's always the option of relying on high alcohol to safeguard stability.

And if that wine with a little RS does well in the marketplace, and gets a critical nod or two, what exactly is the drawback?

Why does sugar matter?

I'll confess that when the idea for this column occurred to me a few months back, I was hoping for an exposé: "Wines & Vines Rips the Lid Off Napa Sugar Scandal," or something like that. Thinking about it now, I not only don't have the hard numbers I envisioned, but I'm also no longer so sure why this would be an exposé.

If there is a splash of sugar in a lot of fancy red wines, it isn't a health problem--nothing on the scale of the high-fructose corn syrup in your Pop-Tarts. It's hard to see how adjusting--or deciding not to adjust--the level of residual sugar is any more manipulative than adjusting the acidity.

If residual sugar winemaking puts wines at risk of spoilage, it can only spoil those wines, not anybody else's. If sweetish reds aren't your style--and they certainly aren't mine--drink something else. Feel free to secretly look down your nose at consumers who gravitate toward the sweeter end, but remember, denouncing wines people actually like to drink is not a winning industry strategy.

There may be a small truth-in-labeling or truth-in-marketing issue raised when off-dry wines are described and promoted as dry. As McCloskey says, this is an industry that really dislikes labeling.

Mostly, what sticks with me is McCloskey's cautionary tale about the rise and fall of ultra-premium Chardonnay. Once a large part of the industry went for that sweet spot, Chardonnay became perceived as generic. Hence the custom of walking into a restaurant and ordering "a glass of Chardonnay," without asking about the brand, let alone looking at the menu. Not a good development for producers of serious, distinctive, artisanal, traditional Chardonnay.

Sugar--and large lashings of oak--fueled the rise of Chardonnay, and as sugar always does with your kids, it fueled the crash, too. There's still plenty of Chardonnay around, but the glamour in that segment has taken a big hit.

If a little dab of sugar expands beyond its beachhead in Zinfandel--where my palate says it has been common for a while--to more Rhône and Bordeaux varietals and super-ripe Pinot Noir, it will surely add to the already troublesome level of sameness in California wines. And it surely won't help in the quest for terroir, the expression of place. It may or may not sell more wine.

Maybe the story will have the happy, James Taylor ending, with more people being in love with the wines. Or maybe this trend will sweeten its own downfall and have the Jackie Gleason ending, leaving the dry-style folks nodding wisely and muttering, "How sweet it is."

Tim Patterson writes about wine and makes his own in Berkeley, Calif. Years of experience as a journalist, combined with a contrarian streak, make him interested in getting to the bottom of wine stories, casting a critical eye on conventional wisdom in the process. Contact him through
Posted on 03.11.2009 - 07:47:39 PST
Tim Patterson’s January article “Residual Sugar-- 'How Sweet It Is'” was interesting as usual but a bit perplexing. He begins by saying “There is a widespread hunch among wine writers and winemakers that a lot of New World reds…contain a pinch or two of residual sugar, even if they're marketed as dry wines” But then he says there are no stats to back it up: “Getting good, hard information on this topic isn't easy.”

Yet instead of then testing at least a sample of wines to prove or disprove his thesis – maybe even just a half-dozen reds – he basically says that lab fees are too high and he (and W&V) can’t afford it.

If you’re going to put something out there, particularly a science/research issue which is indeed knowable, then please follow it up.

Anecdotes are fine when spinning tales, reminiscing or merely giving one’s opinion, but really not the best approach here, don’t you think?

Thank you.
Metuchen, NJ USA