what if we told you that sugar-free wines are an actual thing? We learned a a bit about low-sugar wine making from Dry Farm Wines, the world’s largest curator of natural, biodynamic, dry-farmed wines and knew we had to bring you the full story.
A little wine can be good for the soul, but as we all know, a little too much wine can end up being a big source of sugar in our diets. When we first stumbled across Dry Farm Wines, we thought they sounded too good to be true: the wine club work exclusively with winemakers and family-owned vineyards that adhere to 100% organic winemaking practices while producing high-quality, beautiful wines. We’ve since learned to respect what they do through and through. Wines sold through DFW are toxin-free, low carb, low alcohol (< 12.5%), and essentially sugar-free (< 1g/L).
On Grapes, Fermentation + Sugar
Grapes are full of sugar. A bottle of wine is made from the juice of roughly 600-800 grapes. But that wine can have anywhere from zero to 100+ grams of sugar in it.
How is this possible? The answer lies in the simple, natural, and somewhat mysterious process of fermentation. During fermentation, yeasts convert sugar into alcohol, gradually turning plain grape juice into wine. Fermentation and sugar content are closely related — and with the right fermentation process, like the one we use, the wines you drink can be sugar-free.
Sugar In Wine: It’s A Health Thing + A Taste Thing
When it comes to wine and health, sugar is an important variable. Excessive sugar consumption links to heart disease, weight gain and obesity, diabetes, inflammation, and shorter lifespan. Consuming less sugar, on the other hand, links to a decreased risk of metabolic diseases. Sugar content in wine varies greatly, and some wines can be a hidden source of sugar in your diet.
Sugar affects wine’s taste, too. There’s sweetness, of course: more sugar generally means a sweeter wine. But sugar also changes wine’s body and mouthfeel. High-sugar wines have more weight to them and often have a rich, syrupy mouthfeel, while low-sugar wines tend to be lighter and fruitier.
Taste is a matter of preference, but if you want to drink wine as part of a healthy lifestyle, your best bet is low-sugar or sugar-free wine.
The two main sugars in wine are glucose and fructose. Some wines also contain trace amounts of sucrose. There are different proportions of glucose and fructose in every wine, and different yeasts have different preferences when they ferment sugars into alcohol. The ratio of glucose to fructose impacts how the final wine will taste. Fructose, for example is twice as sweet as glucose, and wines with small amounts of fructose can still taste sweet, while wines with a few grams of glucose can taste dry.
Generally, all the sugar in wine comes from the grapes and nowhere else. In fact, it’s illegal to add extra sugar (a process called chaptalization) in most parts of the world. The exceptions are places where grapes don’t get as much sun, leaving them under ripe when it’s time to harvest. The Champagne region in Northern France, for example, is one of the few places where winemakers are allowed to add extra sugar to their grape because the region is so cold throughout the year.
How Much Sugar Is Typically In Wine?
Sugar content in wine can vary dramatically. Some wines are completely dry, with zero grams of sugar per liter, while especially sweet dessert wines can have more than 100 grams of sugar per liter. While there are no official definitions for sugar content in wines, this is an approximate range of sugar content based on wine style:
Dry wine: 0-11 g/L sugar
Semi-dry wine: 12-35 g/L sugar
Medium wine: 36-70 g/L sugar
Dessert wine: 71+ g/L sugar
Fermentation is the biggest determining factor in wine’s sugar content. As wine ferments, yeasts convert sugar to alcohol. With enough time, the yeasts will eat up all the sugar, leaving nothing left. This process is called full fermentation.
Full fermentation is fairly uncommon. Most producers stop fermentation early by adding sulfur dioxide to wine, killing off yeasts before they can convert all the sugar into alcohol. Allowing wine to ferment completely takes time. For the sake of faster production, many commercial winemakers cut fermentation short by sterilizing their wines, killing off yeasts before they can ferment all the sugar in wine. Shorter production cycles allow more profits. Cutting off fermentation is also one way to control alcohol content, and lower-alcohol wines are taxed less. Many producers stop fermentation early to minimize the tax rate on their wines.
There are a few other reasons winemakers leave residual sugar in their wines:
taste Preference. High-sugar wines are widely popular in some parts of the world (particularly the United States). For example, heavy, high-alcohol, jammy Cabernets from Napa Valley, California tend to be quite sweet, and they’re some of the most sought-after wines in the U.S. Higher-sugar wine is in demand, which drives commercial winemakers to produce more of it.
wine Quality issues. Sugar can mask poor winemaking by acting as a substitute for more nuanced flavors and textures. Sugar is also an easy way to give more body to a wine.
For these reasons, a lot of common wines are higher in sugar. You can’t always taste the sugar in wine, either. Sweetness can be hidden by acidity and tannins (compounds that give wine a puckering mouthfeel), which means a wine can taste dry and still have sugar in it. It’s also worth mentioning that the FDA allows any wine with fewer than 2.5g/L of sugar to be labeled “sugar-free”. The only way to find truly sugar-free wine is to lab test.
How To Try Low-Sugar Natural Wines
Learning to shop natural wines and find bottles you love is a process. Experiment at wine shops with knowledgable pros and when dining out, ask for help finding natural wines on the menu. We’re been trying out Dry Farm Wines monthly deliveries that include a unique selection of 6 or 12 biodynamic natural wines sourced from small farms around the world. You can select reds, whites, a mix — and now, rosé! A one time delivery or a monthly box will have you learning a ton about natural wineries around the world in no time.