What I Learned Today: On Sweetness in Red Wine

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In this post, a city slicker with no green thumb, like so many wine writers, tries to describe the process of winemaking, having never done it, which is I guess quite comical. 

Here on this lazy Sunday, I’m still thinking about wine.  I took a chance and Tweeted to several winemakers about something that’s been bothering me:

Why do so many New World red wines, which are supposedly dry, taste off-dry or even saccharine?

When I first came to wine I enjoyed this quality, as an edge of sweetness can make an otherwise ordinary red taste opulent or luxe.  This is what they are going for.  They know their audience wants big, powerful wines, and sweetness helps them get there.

Now that I’ve been enjoying and studying wine for a few years, it offends me…it makes the wine taste artificial.  It’s alright when a wine is supposed to be sweet, like a riesling with its residual sugar, but a cabernet? a pinot noir? I don’t think so.

My big question was, was this a result of chaptalization? (A process where winemakers add sugar to the juice to increase the alcohol content).

NO, was my first answer. Chaptalization is used when the juice doesn’t have enough sugar to convert to alcohol, i.e. the grapes didn’t have a lot of sugar to begin with.

New World winemakers, at least in the U.S., struggle from the OPPOSITE problem: the grapes get a lot of sugar from being really ripe, and naturally convert it to a lot of alcohol, to the lament of many wine lovers who prefer low-alcohol wines.

Wines are left with a little or a lot of residual sugar, depending on either what happens naturally, or by winemaker design.  Residual sugar is what’s left after the yeast converts some of the sugar in the juice to alcohol.

So the first answer is, when a red wine tastes a little (or a lot) sweet, it could be just the residual sugar we’re tasting.

But something was still bothering me.  In the more offensive bottles I’ve tasted, it tastes like maybe there’s some sugar added for flavor.  I knew, if it was true, it was probably a dirty secret of the industry.

But luckily, one of the winemakers told me:

Some winemakers add grape juice or concentrate to the wine mixture.

Though another said that concentrate adds flavor, not sweetness.

The first winemaker also said the only wines that are allowed to use white sugar are sparkling wines.

So I guess we won’t know exactly what concentrate does, but now we know:

a) sweetness in reds usually caused by ripe (or overripe) grapes

b) which can be showcased or downplayed by winemaker design, along with what grapes they choose to use

c) and possibly enhanced by grape juice or concentrate.

-Carol

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