Chuckle though we may at "unserious" sweet wines such as Baby Duck and Blue Nun, sugar remains in vogue with wine makers – not just where cloying pop products such as those are concerned, but with respect to dry wines. Experts insist dry has been getting sweeter for a long time.
Until now, there has been no easy way to tell, because natural grape sugar – in contrast to alcohol, another component on the rise for decades – flew under the labelling radar. The landscape changed in Ontario this month with the rollout of new bin tags on Liquor Control Board of Ontario shelves that list actual sugar concentrations in grams per litre. Just how sweet is that easy drinking Yellow Tail shiraz? At 12 g/L, the popular Australian red contains almost three teaspoons of sugar in a bottle. That's about one-tenth the concentration of Coca-Cola (a very sweet product) and three times the level found in, say, Louis Jadot Bourgogne pinot noir from France.
The information, which applies to most regularly available wines, has also been posted on the LCBO website, meaning consumers elsewhere can cross-reference products available in their own provinces.
Some people may use the numbers to hunt for higher-sugar wines, because sugar softens the rough edges of acidity and astringency (and, in too many cases, is used as a crutch by winemakers to mask flaws, often with cloying results, if you ask me). Others may do the opposite in an effort to reduce sugar intake. The numbers won't have much impact on diabetics, though, because alcohol, which lowers their blood glucose, is the bigger concern in the case of relatively dry wines, notes Sharon Zeiler, senior manager of education and nutrition at the Canadian Diabetes Association. Most diabetics can safely consume dry wine in moderation, ideally with carbohydrate-based foods, she says, assuming they know how to control their blood glucose.
The new bin-tag numbers replace the old sugar-code scale, which ranged from zero to 15. Though familiar to many consumers, that system fell short on a number of counts. Most notably, it was vague. In the case of "one," for example, sugar could have fallen anywhere from five to 15 g/L, which may have been the difference between bone dry and off-dry, depending on other flavour factors. At the other end of the scale, a code of 15 denoted 145 to 155 g/L – considerably lower than many ice wines. Other retailers, such as British Columbia's Liquor Distribution Branch, use similar codes, though in the BCLDB's case, the numbers range from zero to 10.
More importantly, sugar is just one component in sweetness perception. Acidity, present in all wines to varying degrees, strongly counterbalances the sensation. A wine with, say, eight g/L of sugar and five grams of acidity will taste dry, while a wine with the same sugar level but a total acidity of seven grams would be described by most consumers as extra dry, says Leonard Franssen, the LCBO's manager of quality services.
That's why Ontario bin tags will also carry one of five terms – extra dry, dry, medium, medium sweet and sweet – that take the sugar-acid balance into account.
Those descriptions, generated by a scientific algorithm based on consumer taste tests, may be useful to many shoppers. But where serious wine enthusiasts are concerned, it may be found wanting. For one thing, it paints sweetness (or dryness) with a broad brush. To me, Yellow Tail tastes significantly sweeter than Santa Rita Reserva cabernet sauvignon from Chile, which contains half the sugar (six g/L ). Yet, according to the algorithm, both wines are "dry."
And while the sugar-to-acid ratio is by far the dominant factor behind perceived sweetness, other components can nudge impressions this way or that. Take tannins. Natural compounds found in grape skins, seeds, stems and oak barrels, tannins taste astringent and bitter. Sweetness helps reduce both sensations and vice versa, says Gary Pickering, professor of wine science at Brock University's Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute in Niagara. He says that's probably one reason sugar has been trending upward – an easy way for wine makers to render tannic red wines more approachable in their youth.
Believe it or not, odour can play a role. Dr. Pickering says one reason many products today contain vanilla is that the smell evokes a sensation of sweetness. It's not real sweetness, which is perceived on the tongue, but the smell can trick the mind. (Think of those soaps you may have been tempted to eat in the shower – or is that just me?) Vanilla happens to be a common essence in wines aged in oak barrels. The opposite holds true of citrus, an aroma found in many white wines. Lemon, lime or grapefruit smells can cause people to describe a wine as drier than it is.
Yet another factor figures in to the sensory soup mix: alcohol. At concentrations below 10 per cent, the dominant quality it contributes is sweetness, says Dr. Pickering, who has researched alcohol's effect. "At concentrations above 10 per cent, both bitterness and heat, or irritation, become the dominant sensations," he adds.
With alcohol trending upward over the past several decades, thanks to better ripeness in the vineyard, it's no wonder wine makers are leaving an extra spoonful of sugar in the bottle.
Sugar content in popular wines, expressed in grams per litre:
Louis Jadot Bourgogne pinot noir: four g/L
Stoneleigh sauvignon blanc: five g/L
Santa Rita Reserva cabernet sauvignon: six g/L
Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve chardonnay: nine g/L
Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin Brut Champagne: 11 g/L
Yellow Tail shiraz: 12 g/L
Folie à Deux Ménage à Trois Red: 15 g/L
Blue Nun: 32 g/L
Beringer white zinfandel: 34 g/L
Andrés Baby Duck: 54 g/L
Chateau Doisy-Daëne Sauternes: 114 g/L
Inniskillin Riesling ice wine: 234 g/L