Dry Wine or Sweet Wine? How to Manage Sugar when Making Wine

As a winemaker, much of my thoughts and actions are given to solving the problem of  sugar in wine. Residual sugar in one wine can be the bane of a good vintage. But sweetness can also be another wine’s glory.

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In my experience, the industry standard of fermenting wines to dryness is the imperative ninety-five percent of the time. To taste a Cabernet Sauvignon that you expected would be gum-tinglingly tannic and instead tastes like a chocolate covered raspberry would be off-putting to most because a sweet Cabernet Sauvignon is not the industry standard. The profile for many wines is dryness – in other words a lack of sweetness, the absence of sugar.

Stepping into the laboratory for a moment, let’s assume we have been fermenting the must* (crushed grapes) of the most recent vintage and our intention is to create a wine that has a profile that is lean and crisp and dry. According to our most recent test results the must has stopped fermenting before it has reached our intended goal of negative 1.5 brix*.

Now let’s assume we have 100,000 gallons of this wine. Our customers expect it to be lean and crisp and definitely not sweet. This is a problem. Houston, we have a ‘stuck fermentation.’ The sweetness needs to be removed. Your brand depends on it.

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The most likely way we would try to remove the sugar would be to recreate the primary alcoholic fermentation process. To do this, you would need a yeast that is tolerant to high levels of alcohol. Alcohol kills yeast after all, and if you have a wine that is close to dryness but not quite dry, you will not only have high levels of alcohol but very little sugar with which to work.