From our childhood, we are accustomed that sweet is synonymous of tasty. Some of us never grew up and still prefer savory food with soda drinks or juices. Did you know that all wines contain sugar? Yes, not only dessert wines. I invite you to sweeten us up a little.
1. The key is balance
Our tongue detects four primary flavors: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. In wine, a harmony of flavors is sought, especially in dry wines, but also in sweet ones we must find a right balance between a rich sweetness and a refreshing acidity.
Even the ancient Greeks were more than clear about it. They liked sweet wine, but they did not allow the berries to overripe, but they harvested them early to keep a high natural acidity. Then, they dried them for a few days under the sun. Thanks to this technique, the wine felt sweet and fresh at the same time.
2. Where does sugar come from?
The sugar in the wine comes directly from the grape. There are natural sugars like fructose and glucose in each berry. The longer the grapes stay hanging from the vine, the more sugar is concentrated inside. If we wait for a long time, harvesting the grapes in autumn, we obtain wines with very high concentrations of sugar called “late harvest”.
This natural sugar is the favorite food of yeast. During the fermentation process, these magical microorganisms convert sugar into alcohol and release carbon dioxide. The bubbles are always part of the winemaking, but in the case of the sparkling wines they are trapped in the bottle. But, why is there sugar in some wines? Do not the yeasts eat all of it?
There are several types of yeast, some more resistant to an alcoholic environment than others. While they are eating, transforming the sugar into alcohol, they faint or die on the road. That’s why there is always a little residual sugar left. That’s why it can be said that yeasts give their lives for wine.
In the case of sweet wines, there are different processes or approaches for their production. The first and most obvious is to harvest sweet grapes, even raisins or botrytized grapes (when a noble fungus covers the berry and traps its sugars, aromas and acids). In this environment, even the most guzzler yeasts are not able to eat all the sugar. The second trick is to cut the fermentation or “kill” the yeast by adding a strong alcohol. This method is used in fortified wines such as Jerez, Porto or Madeira. The third method is to lower the temperature during fermentation. Yeast does not like cold. This is what lovers of homemade bread and brioche desserts know. The kitchen cannot be an igloo, because the yeasts are thrown to strike. They are afraid to work.
There are also other methods, such as simply adding sugar. But in this case, we are no longer talking about residual sugar, but added sugar. In ancient Rome honey was sometimes added to wine. In Germany, there is a method called süssreserve where grape must is added to sweeten the wine. There are also many of poor grape quality, where ordinary sugar is added to “fix” the wine, cover its defects or distract the attention from its bitter tannins.
3. Some have less, others more
The level of sugar in a wine is measured in grams per liter. A dry white wine is between 1-2 gr / l. A curiosity: there is no wine that has zero sugar. There is always some mini percentage. A dry red wine, on the other hand, has 2-3 gr / l. That is, winemakers do what they can to make their yeasts happy and achieve an elegant balance between sweetness and acidity.
Finally, there is an interesting category of wines called “off dry” (10-30 gr / l.). I say interesting because they are slightly sweet wines and very versatile in pairing with different cuisines, especially with the spicy oriental dishes. Dessert wines, on the other hand, generally have 100-200 gr / l. A candy for our senses.
4. An ugly duckling
Do not be ashamed if you like sweet wine. Yes, I know. For many, it may be an ugly duckling. But it’s not like that. Most wine connoisseurs love late harvest and fortified wines. All styles of wine have their place at the table and vocation to devise celestial pairings. In addition, sugar (residual and non-added) preserves wine for many years. For example, it is said that Madeira wines are eternal, that they will never be converted to vinegar during bottle micro-oxidation. I love sweet wines because they capture the scents of summer like no other. I close my eyes and I feel the perfume of flowers, fruits, honey… life; la dolce vita.