When and why is sugar added to wine?

By Dave Schavone

The topic of adding sugar to wine can be a confusing one. The obvious assumption is that if a winemaker adds sugar to wine, the purpose is to make it sweeter. That can be true, but more often a winemaker adds sugar for other reasons.

Why is sugar added to sparkling wine?

Let’s look at sparkling wines, for example: sugar is often added to induce a second fermentation. Integral to methode champenoise, the addition of a blend of sugar and yeast (known as liqueur de tirage), starts the secondary fermentation that gives the wine its signature bubbles. There is some disagreement as to whether a wine can be made in this way and still be considered “natural,” and this is a topic we’ll dig into further when we release our first sparkling wines.

Why is sugar added to still wine?

With still wines, sugar is often added before fermentation to increase the alcohol content of the finished product. In some areas, like Burgundy or Oregon where grapes ripen slowly, the addition of refined sugar (either cane or beet) is permitted. This process is called chaptalization. In other regions–California, for example–winemakers use concentrated grape must (just another name for sugar water). Regardless of the method, the results are the same.

Why do some winemakers add sugar to wine, and others don’t?

The sugar content of grapes is a key factor in deciding the right time to harvest a vintage. When the primary concern in the vineyard is for the highest quality wine, brix and its counterpart pH are the driving technical factors, along with the perception and experience of the winemaker.

When quality takes a backseat to economic considerations, such as maximizing yield per hectare or maintaining a specific flavor profile across vintages, growers know they can always add sugar during the winemaking process.

[The idea of fixing what goes wrong in the vineyard with additives in the cellar flies in the face of everything natural wine should be about.]

How does adding sugar to wine affect flavor?

That tinkering in the winemaking process has effects beyond just increasing the finished ABV. Obviously the character of the wine will be different, with added richness and and a fuller body. Sugar also serves to highlight fruit flavors, often leading to wines ranging from “fruit forward” to “jammy” to “flabby.”

There are also technical hurdles to overcome. As some winemakers, notably in California, have pushed for higher and higher ABVs, yeast suppliers have developed new yeast strains that can keep fermenting in a higher alcohol environment. Increased alcohol levels may appeal to some people–many consumers still use the ABV-per-dollar method–but for those looking to enjoy a quality glass of wine, this alteration can be the deciding factor in choosing a different bottle.

On top of all that, winemakers are under no obligation to tell you if they’ve added sugar to their product. Many producers continue to fight against any sort of wine label transparency requirements, which begs the question: what are they hiding? You may want sugar in your cake frosting or in the pitcher of sweet tea you make every week, but do you really want it in your wine?

No sugar needed when you have great tasting wine

More and more people are becoming conscious of what they drink, and with RedThumb, we aim to provide them with a quality wine that reflects these values. We list everything from ingredients (like native yeast) to methods (think natural farming practices) front and center on our bottles. We commit to transparency in our standards [no added sugars is one of them], so you spend less time worrying and more time enjoying each natural sip.