My good friend, Amie Bunch, recently sent me a note asking, “This maybe a dumb question, but do they add sugar to wine?”
Here is the answer I sent her:
“Not a dumb question at all, it is a great question.
Wine gets sweetness and alcohol from the sugar that is in the grapes that the wine is made from.
In the vineyard, buds break out on the vines in the spring and grapes come from those buds. The vines take moisture from the earth and heat from the sun during the summer and grapes grow from the buds – small at first – but larger and larger and by fall’s harvest they have gone from bitter to sweeter. The measure of sugar in a grape at harvest is called brix and usually the higher the brix the more a grower gets paid for his grapes.
The sugar loaded grapes are squeezed, crushed, pressed, stomped, and otherwise rendered of their juice at the winery. Grapes become grape juice.
Fermentation, the changing of grape juice to wine, occurs when yeasts (naturally occurring or purposefully chosen inoculation) convert the sugars in grape juice to alcohol, heat, and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide can be bled off, the heat can be controlled with cooling coils, and the alcohol can be manipulated to some degree.
In many red wines fermentation is complete, taken all the way to dryness and this can yield some high alcohol wines. As Zinfandel can often brix high, there are Zinfandels that drink hot with alcohol running 17 percent or higher.
Many sweeter wines – whites and rosé, have lower alcohol and higher residual sugar, because fermentation is stopped before the yeast can convert all of the sugar in the juice into alcohol. To stop fermentation coils around a stainless steel tank are super chilled, cooling the wine, and stopping the fermentation.
Okay, that’s the vineyard grape to juice to wine story.
Some vintages (simply another name for year when referring to grapes) are cool, too cold to yield the desired brix for a vineyard’s grapes. Big rains can do the same thing, especially if they come late in the season but before harvest, as the vines suck up the extra moisture which then decreases the ratio of sugar to water in the grape. Generally, growers do not love low sugar grapes. Same with the winemaker at the winery.
A natural fix for low sugar in the grapes would be simply to add some sugar.
Wineries in the U.S. are not allowed to add sugar to wines. It is illegal.
That said, grape concentrates can be added to the juice to bring sugars up and a low brix problem can be solved.
Oh, and it is alleged that some wineries – I’m thinking of one enormous producer of Chardonnay in particular – do in fact add sugar to their juice.
Now to break the rule; bubbly, champagne, sparkling wine – whatever you call it – does get sugar added to the wine. Instead of making the wine in a barrel or tank, the wine is made in the bubbly bottle and spends a year to a year and a half in the case of McFadden, as an example, with the yeast and lees (spent yeast and other small solids) before disgorgement (a process of removing those particulate solids). At disgorgement, a dosage (a dose) of sugar is added to the wine and the cork & cage are fitted. The small bit of unspent yeast acts upon the dosage and a secondary fermentation occurs.
Remember the carbon dioxide I mentioned before that is bled away? Well, now, trapped inside the bottle, this carbon dioxide becomes a part of the wine, and that added sugar is responsible for the bubbles in a bottle of bubbly.”
Yeah, I know the answer was a bit long winded, but she thanked me, writing back, “You rock! My friend asked me and I told her I didn’t think they did. I told her I would find out. I forwarded her your response and she was so impressed. I said, yeah, I have smart friends.’” Hopefully the answer, off the top of my head, was right.
Next week is the big Coro Mendocino wine dinner at Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah. Grab your reservation, don’t wait, do it now! What are you thinking? That they have hundreds of seats available? They don’t. Call now. (707) 463-0700. About 60 very lucky dinner guests will sit down on Wednesday, Dec. 11 at 6 p.m. for an amazing Chef’s Wine Dinner.
Here’s the working Chef’s menu: Mini Wedge Salads with Nueske bacon, blue cheese, tomato, and red onion; Dungeness Crab Cakes with tomato confit, basil aioli, and balsamic; Oyster Rockefeller the original recipe from 1899; Steak Tartare with French mustard dressing, caper, crispy shallot, and chive; Slow roasted Aged Prime rib of Beef with creamed fresh horseradish and natural au jus; Twiced Baked Idaho Potatoes with cheddar, scallion, and crème fraiche; Creamed Spinach Au Gratin with nutmeg, gruyere, and shallot; Local Organic Roasted Carrots with maple, dill, and butter; and a dessert of Butterscotch Budino with chocolate, whipped cream, and caramel pearls. Ten local wineries will be pouring their Coro Mendocino heritage Zinfandel blend wines; they are Brutocao, Claudia Springs, Fetzer, Golden, McFadden, McNab Ridge, Mendocino Vineyards, Parducci, Philo Ridge and Ray’s Station. $65 covers dinner and wine, add tax and a tip, and the price is the bargain of the year. Count on Sparkling Brut to kick things off and dessert wine to end the night. Have you called yet? Stop reading, and start punching buttons, (707) 463-0700, and I’ll see you there.