Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Quiz: Guess which very popular wine has more residual sugar?

What's in the wines America is really drinking? I can't tell you about additives -- those aren't listed on the label, as the wine industry as a whole prefers secrecy, even as young consumers keep saying they want to know what's going in their bodies.

What I can tell you, thanks to the labs at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, is how much residual sugar is in some of the most popular wines in the United States.

To be clear, "residual sugar" isn't "added sugar." What it means is that the winery -- all of these are large commercial wine factories -- picks the grapes riper than they need to be, and then stops the fermentation before all of the sugar in these overripe grapes becomes alcohol. They leave in that sugar to please the sweet tooth of consumers, who often think they are buying "dry wine" because, unlike the EU, where wines must have under 9 g/l of RS to be considered "dry,"* the US has no standard for what "dry wine" actually is. Some of our "dry wines" are loaded with sugar, and not by accident, as sweetness sells.

* Europe has an exception for wines over 7 g/l Total Acidity, which isn't something you see often in US wines, and never in supermarket wines like these.

The winery then must add higher amounts of sulfites or other preservatives to the wine than would be needed if it were dry, in order to prevent the sugar in the wine from re-fermenting in the bottle. So wherever you find a high amount of RS, you will also find other things you might not want to drink.

I looked up the top 15 selling wine brands in the US in 2018, according to Wine Handbook 2019, and the top wines from the Wine & Spirits Restaurant poll, on the website of the LCBO, which tests all the wines sold in that Canadian province for a number of things, including residual sugar. Ontario doesn't carry all of these wines, notably excluding Franzia and Sutter Home, the No. 1 and No. 4 selling wines in the U.S. by volume.

I could just post the results, but let's have a little more fun. See if you can guess which wine has the most residual sugar (RS). Note that I didn't even use the big sugar bombs. If you want to avoid lots of RS, stay away from cheap Moscatos and cheap ros├ęs.

Which brings me to wine Twitter's current fixation, "clean wine." People on Twitter keep whining about how their handpicked estate vineyard biodynamic native-yeast Counoise is a way more natural product than "clean wine." Stipulated. But what do you think people who might be interested in "clean wine" have been drinking to this point? Take the quiz -- the answer to that question is all over it like marshmallows on sweet potatoes.

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Bob Rossi said...

Very interesting quiz. I only got 1 right. I don't think I've ever knowingly tried any of those wines, but even if I had, I doubt I would have done much better on the test.

tercero wines said...

One other thing to consider. Though these wineries cannot actually add 'sugar', they can, and many certainly do, add grape concentrate before bottling to increase the RS.


W. Blake Gray said...

Tercero: That's an interesting point. Mega Purple is supposedly mainly for the color, but it is grape extract and it is sweet.

Tim Hanni MW said...

Part One: Glad that the concentrate-as-sweetener got picked up, but also fresh grape juice is used as well. Mega-purple is an expensive option and used in more frequently in many mid- to high-end wines. Inexpensive reds can also incorporate grapes like Alicante Bouschet, Gamay au jus noir, Ruby Cabernet and others to acheive a darker red color.

So with pandemic-derived glee on a subject near and dear to my heart let me offer a few thoughts.

So I assume the idea that residual sugar results in substandard wines, wines that would require the addition of sulfites and other nefarious additives and preservatives, and this would apply to a wide range of wines within the category of table wines: a vast number of great Riesling wines including estate German wines, Vouvray, Champagne? Missing in this article is the modern and most prevalent way to produce a stable, lower alcohol wine with sweetness which is sterile filtration. After WWII, when Seitz invented sterile membranes for safe drinking water for the troops, it was later discovered this could be applied to wine, less expensive (including high quality wines), shelf-stable wines could be produced and shipped around the world, and the nonsense of 'sweet wine is (take your choice) bad, flawed, unsophisticated, cheap...' Then personality transference took over and those of us 'in the know' started to define consumers who enjoy these wines as bad, flawed, cheap, unsophisticated...then we wonder why wine consumption in Italy, France and Spain are in a huge spiral downward.

There are many reasons the term "dry" is so confusing is that it is a relative term, and also to many people an auto-antonym; wine is a liquid, how can it be dry when it is wet? Same thing with the metaphorical use of "heavy" wine - a sweet Moscato or Riesling weighs less than a higher alcohol, dry wine. Then there is Champagne and sparkling wine that is exempt, even in the EU and elsewhere - the FRENCH standard for 'dry' (sec) Champagne is 1.7-3.2% (17-32 g/L)...Carlo Rossi up to about White Zinfandel levels. Even Brut Champagne allows up to 1.2% (12 g/L) RS. There are several historical points to consider as well about sweet wines, which were enjoyed with meals for centuries (even Ch. d'Yquem was treated as a table wine, not the dreaded "dessert wine" category it is in today). Wine was sweetened by adding fruit juice (Sangria), in wine cocktails from Kir and beyond (Dubonnet, Lillet, Vermouth and many others), served sweetened, hot and spiced. It was very common to add sugar and water to taste AT the table in all of Europe, much like millions of people might to make tea or coffee acceptable to their taste. The list is long.

Tim Hanni MW said...

Part two: There are also 'sweet' compounds in wine including alcohol (with important variables related to perceptive individulism), 'sweet-tasting' amino acids including glycine, succinic acid (part of the equation for the 'sweet taste of crap and scallops) and proline (you can buy some in any store with a decent supplement section) and try it - sweet as heck but not a sugar), glycerine (technically an alcohol sugar but not really relevant in table wines), plus the umami compounds glutamate and nucleotides (https://academic.oup.com/chemse/article/27/8/739/387718). Even succinic acid These are all found in wine, many times in appreciable levels independently, but in combination create distinct perception of sweetness that cannot be explained by analysis for sugars but are in the category of 'sugar free extract' but not part of measuring residual sugar.

And finally there is 'perceptive individualism' and the wonderfully complex human sensory system (sensory biology/physiology, neurology and psychology) that results in vastly different levels of recognition/discrimination thresholds, intensity of sensations and even any ability to perceive certain things at all. Perception from any source of stimulus can vary dramatically from one person to the next and is virtually unknown, other than lip service like, "oh yeah, our palates are all different." This goes far beyond what most people know and applies to EVERYONE regardless of training or experience. Thus alcohol may seem entirely 'sweet' to one person, the same level eliciting a burning sensation and is very unpleasant to the next (Dan Berger vs. Robert Parker). No right or wrong, just differences in perception (more on this coming soon!!).

The wine community, experts, and educators need a better understanding of all of this. We can drive millions of consumers to other beverage options (and continue to do so) with our battle cry of "educate the consumer" when it is us who need to become better educated and learn how we can communicate without trashing consumers who are actually expressing their preferences and carrying on traditions that the wine community either does not know or chooses to ignore. Whew. Thanks for listening.

Joseph said...

Never ever under estimate the sweet tooth of the American public, was said many many years ago by Coca Cola.

Tim Hanni MW said...

Joseph (and others) - consider that "the sweet tooth of the American public" is an unfortunate cliche that ignores history, is based on a false correlation, and that this outmoded thinking is harmful to the global wine industry. French Champagne in general, and as consumed in France and exported, was typically over 30% SWEETER than Coke. Montrachet was sweet in great vintages, fortified Port was served before and during meals in France. AND Ch. d'Yquem was less frequently served with dessert (easy to find in pre-WWII texts on wine/food and old menus). Yet VERY sweet wines were frequently served with oysters, beef, wild boar and throughout great meals. Time to retire the cliche and improve our information base! All of Europe has enjoyed sweet and sweetened wines with (and without) their meals for centuries. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/170-year-old-champagne-recovered-and-tasted-baltic-shipwreck-180955050/

W. Blake Gray said...

Wow, Tim Hanni, that's a novella ...

You know I don't disagree with you that people should drink what they like. The reason these wines are among the top sellers in the US is because people like them, and a reason (not the only one) for THAT is that they have some sweetness. Which many people like.

I'm not trying to tell anyone to stop drinking these wines -- not that anyone would listen to me if I did.

That said, I really don't think you can blame demonization of sweet wines for the decline of wine consumption in Europe. So many factors: anti-alcohol campaigns, tougher drunk-driving laws, cultural changes that make wine with lunch no longer de rigeur, competition from spirits. (The last time I went to a bar in Spain everybody but me was drinking gin & tonics. Me, I had funky Vermouth on tap.)

But a parallel point you come up to the brink of making is this: the U.S. has plenty of sweet wines in our top 15, and wine consumption is rising here faster than most of the world. In exchange for your effort in posting a novella in my comment section, I give you that as a lead line for your lectures. Cheers.

Tim Hanni MW said...

I am working on the Perception Project today so this was all top of mind and I just needed to string things together. Total agreement that the disastrous decline in consumption in Europe is very complex - and the "wine is the beverage of moderation" cliche got busted wide open given the toll from widespread alcoholism and abuse.

My point is that the industry and wine community at large creates a hostile environment for sweet wine lovers using misinformation and displaying a poor understanding of the history of wine. Shame on us. :-) Let's clean up OUR act!

Tim Hanni MW said...

I have been following the decline of wine consumption closely for decades. Here is a link to a great article, and the notation by food writer Perico Legasse, "Wine is an element in the meal. But what has happened is that it's gone from being popular to elitist. It is totally ridiculous. It should be perfectly possible to drink moderately of good quality wine on a daily basis."

Rising alcohol levels, over-premiumization, the arrogant attitude that "sweet is for beginners/novices/uneducated/unsophisticated" has played a major role in the decline along with more options, health issues, drunk driving laws, etc. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21929287 for a great article (2013). Since 1952, my birth year, per capita consumption in France and Italy is down 85%. 85%. Did I mention 85%? :-)

Bob Rossi said...

Whether your figures are accurate or not, one thing is certain. The supposed "anti-sweet-wine"attitude has nothing to do with decreasing wine consumption. Rising alcohol levels, which is certainly a fact, is also a questionable factor.

Tim Hanni MW said...

Bob Rossi - the figures are accurate (and easy to find) and the anti-sweet arrogance and idiocy is a factor - I have been conducting wine consumer preference, attitudes and behaviors studies for over 20 years and they include adoption/migration elements. Most sweet wine drinkers would rather lie about what they like rather than face the wrath of a wine specialist or sommelier (who all have great intentions but our sine education system is a mess! Who do you think are responsible for the meteoric rise in hard seltzer, hard lemonade, hard sodas and other cocktails and beverages that are set to (and are already) kick the wine industry's butt? Not looking for a fight, this is what I do. Glad to discuss directly if you ever like - hard to get everything across on a blog comment! :-)

Man About Wine said...

I missed one: Beringer Napa Cab vs Apo Dark. I know Apo regular is around 1 or 1.2.

History of best selling wine in U.S.A.: Lancers Rose, Mateus Rose, Blue Nun all preceeded Kendall Jackson Vint Rsrv, and all at least 1%. KJ took off like a rocket with r.s. around 1.5% up to 2% but heavily oaked, unlike the predecessors which had no oak astringency that needed more sugar than the typical .7% or 1% to balance on. Anything that sells in such volumes here is going to be at least .7% and up to 1.2%. Rombauer Chard got very popular 25 or 30 years ago when they decided to put it for sale with around 1.5% r.s. It seems to vary a lot tho, I have tasted some years when it was quite dry and some years it was not. Why the best selling is always .7 up to 1.2??? The point at which the r.s. masks the inherent acid in the most wine, begins at around.5%. And once you get over 1% or 1.2%, the r.s. is starting to become overtly obvious and too much for the everyday drinker who wants at least "some" balance between the acids and sugar.

And if you feel obliged, hi acid wines such as Rieslings with acids of 6, 7 or 8 and Ph down at 3.2, can carry as much 4% or 5% r.s. before the average drinker might notice it as on the sweet side of dinner wine. It takes 8% or more r.s. in such hi acid wines before that drinker might classify as sweet dessert, not dinner, wine.