Is There a Relationship Between a Wine's Sweetness and Its Alcohol Level?

When choosing a wine, one of the characteristics of interest to you might be its sweetness.  But how can you really tell if a wine has sweet tendencies?  The label may have some sentences on the back label to tell you just a little bit about the wine but rarely will it give an indication of its sweetness. The only quantified characteristic of a wine that is printed on a label is its alcohol by volume (ABV) expressed as a percentage.

From this, you can make some indirect assumptions about a wine's sweetness. Rough rules of thumb say if a wine's alcohol content is 10% or less it will have sweet characteristics.  Wines that are even lower (especially down around 8 or 9 percent) will definitely be sweet. Wines in the 11% to 12.5% ABV range are considered 'off-dry' meaning that there is some notable residual sugar.  If it’s 12.5 percent or higher, the wine will be 'dry' and have little to no perceptible sweetness.

Most wines under 10% ABV will be sweet. Typically, wines such as German Riesling and Italian Moscato fall in this category. Wines in the range of 10.5% to 12.5% include Riesling's from Austria, Australia and the U.S., Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio (a.k.a. Pinot Gris).  Then, in the 12.5% to 15.5% range you find Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Sangiovese, Syrah, Grenache and Zinfandel.

But, as previously pointed out, a grape that starts with low sugar levels, and ferments to the point where all the sugar is consumed by the yeast, will result in a wine with lower alcohol levels and little to no residual sugar. So, this is why alcohol levels are not a dependable way of determining a wine's sweetness.

So, while there’s definitely a loose relationship between a wine’s residual sugar and its alcohol level, it’s not a simple relationship.  But you can use the percent alcohol printed on the label as a first indication. Cheers!

What is Residual Sugar in Wine?

One of the terms that gets thrown around in the wine world is 'Residual Sugar.' But it's not something you are going to read about on a wine's label. So, what is it and why should you care?

Let's take a quick step back and review the basics of the wine making process. Simply put, grapes are grown, picked, crushed and fermented into wine then aged and bottled. It's the fermentation process where sugar comes in. 

Grapes naturally contain various types of sugar. Glucose and Fructose are the two most common sugars, but there are others. Grapes also contain varying levels of sugar. Grapes that are allowed to fully ripen, in warm climates, will contain more sugar than grapes that struggle to ripen in cooler climates. And, wine makers will closely monitor the sugar levels (Brix) in grapes while still on the vine, and choose to pick their grapes when the sugar levels are 'just right' for the grape-type they are growing and their style of wine making.

During the fermentation process, yeast is added to the sugary grape juice. The yeast feeds on the sugar and produces alcohol. If there is any sugar remaining after fermentation, it is referred to as 'residual sugar' (usually noted as RS) and is typically recorded in grams per liter (g/L). This is somewhat of a technical term for a wines' resulting sweetness.

Residual sugar is one component that can contribute to a wine tasting sweet. Next time we'll further explore sweetness in wines.  Until then, Cheers!


Medium Bodied and Full Bodied White Wines

Light bodied white wines are a great place to start when learning about and tasting wines.  They are fresh and crisp with bright fruit flavors and high acidity.  So the next step up is into medium bodied and full bodied whites.

As I have been researching and putting together notes on white wines, I've found that it's been tough, as expected, to describe and define a wine's body.  That's because there are not strong lines between the categories of light, medium and full bodied wines.  But the characteristics of alcohol levels, tannin, residual sugar and acidity do give some basic guidance on a wine's body.

While white wine with less than 12.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) would be considered light bodied, medium bodied white wines are said to have 12.5% to 13.5% ABV and full bodied white are those with greater than 13.5% ABV. These are general guidelines, but at least this is one of the few characteristics that is actually shown on a wine's label (ABV percentage is legally required to be printed somewhere on a bottle of wine).

A wine's residual sugar (RS) is also a telling characteristic of its body, but it is directly related to a wine's alcohol level. The lower the alcohol level, the more residual sugar; the higher the alcohol level the lower the alcohol level. So you can expect a light bodied, lower alcohol, wine to have some residual sugar and to have a slightly sweet taste.  The medium and full bodied white wines will have higher alcohol, lower RS and little to no sweetness to them.

The acidity of medium and full bodied white wines is much lower than light body whites.  While the acidity in a light bodied white wine will give it a bright, crisp and mouth watering finish, medium and full bodied white wines will not. These will be richer and smoother.

And finally, there's the characteristic of tannin. This is something that isn't really a factor in white wines. Tannins come from the grapes skin, seeds and stems.  Most every white wine is pressed and the juice is immediately separated from the skins, seeds and stems. So tannin levels are next to zero.  So called "Orange" wines are made from white wine grapes and they to get contact time with the grape skins, seed and stems, giving them the characteristic light orange color (not the flavor of an orange). Tannins do play a huge roll in red wines and we'll say more about this when we address the medium and full bodied red wines in future postings.

In addition these four characteristics, one must consider that a wine's body is also influenced by the wine maker.  The grape variety isn't necessarily the key to determining the body of a wine. Take Chardonnay for example. A Chardonnay that is produced in stainless steel or concrete tanks is considered light bodied. But, if the wine maker chooses to age the Chardonnay in neutral oak it's going to be medium bodied. A Chardonnay that goes through the addition step of Malolactic Fermentation and is aged in new oak will be full bodied.  So, it isn't just the grape variety that determines a wine's body, it's also how it's made.

While Chardonnay is a great example of a medium or full bodied white wine, there are certainly others. And we'll get to them next time. Cheers!


What's a Good Wine to Buy?

It's a question that constantly comes up. "What's a good wine to buy?"  Or there are the related questions of "What wine should I drink?" or "What wine do you recommend?"  These are all great questions that are well intended whether from someone who knows little about wine or someone with significant experience with wines. And while my fundamental philosophy is that you should drink what you like, there are some guidelines when trying to identify wines that you may like.

One of the many keys to understanding wines and to determining what you might like is the characteristic of 'body.'  In general, wines get categorized into three groups: Light bodied, medium bodied and full bodied. While these categories may seem obvious to some, the subject of a wine's body is a bit difficult to explain. It takes time and wine tasting experience to gain a full appreciation. But let's give it a quick try.

The body of a wine is based on multiple things, but mostly how it feels in your mouth. Full bodied wines are typically described as big, bold and powerful, having more tannin and dark fruit flavors. On the other end of the spectrum, light bodied wines are usually considered delicate, with subtle flavors, and bright acidity.

The alcohol content of a wine also strongly influences a wines body. In general, a wine with an alcohol content below 12.5% is considered a light bodied wine. If the alcohol content is 12.5% to 13.5% it is considered medium bodied. And any wine with alcohol greater than 13.5% is considered full bodied (remember that by law a wine label must list it's percent alcohol, though it's usually in fine print). 

So next time we'll get into exploring more about light, medium and full bodied wines. Once you get an understanding and appreciation for these categories, it starts to help answer those questions regarding which wines to drink. And once we narrow things down to the best category for your palette, we'll then begin exploring specific wines in those categories and others with similar characteristics. Until then, Cheers!