One of the most commonly misused words when people order wine is “Sweet”.  When wine people say a wine is sweet, they mean that there is residual sugar in the wine, in other words, not all the grape juice has been converted into alcohol.  This is a winemaker choice.  When a diner asks for sweet wine, they normally mean fruity, lots of juicy fruit on the nose and palate.

But there is a lot more to sweet wines.

When grapes are grown for wine-making, the grower will try to generate as much sugar in the grape as possible. They do this through plot selection, how long they let the grapes stay on the vine, when they pick and mostly lots of praying for good weather.  The level of sugar, measured in a unit called brix controls the upper limit for most premium wines (some wines will add a little sugar later in the process).

In normal wine production, the yeast eats all that delicious sugar and creates alcohol and CO2.  The wine maker usually lets that yeast go until all the sugar is consumed and that creates a relatively dry style wine.  That’s probably the most common style of wine.  As I indicated above, they can be juicy and fruity and seem sweet, but if one was to measure how much residual sugar was in the wine, it wouldn’t be much.  Although almost all wines have a little sugar left in them, even Brut Champagne.

When the winemaker is specifically going for a sweet wine, they can stop the yeast from consuming all the sugar using a few techniques like chilling the wine or filtering off the yeast.  That leaves a wine with a controlled amount of alcohol and some grape sugar in the wine.  You get the best of both worlds, alcohol and nice fresh fruit flavor with a bit of sugar.  It’s important to realize that since we start with a known amount of grape juice sugar, if we want a little left in the wine, the alcohol is going to be a little lower.  Some very sweet wines might have alcohol contents as low as 5%.

If the style the winemaker is going for is unctuously sweet, they have to change how they harvest the grapes to have highly concentrated sugar, beyond that in a normal harvest.  There are a few ways to do this, but two popular ones are to allow a mold to grow on the outside of the grape (Ewwww!).  Yes, it sounds gross, but botrytis is a mold that naturally occurs and is used to make the sweetest German Rieslings and the delicious French Sauternes.  The mold sucks the water out of the grapes, basically turning them into raisins.  They press these raisins to get a super sugary grape juice that turns into the ultimate high sugar, low alcohol wines. 

Another technique is to leave the grapes on the vine far past a normal harvest date into the winter, until they freeze on the vine.  This is used in some German wines and Rieslings from upstate New York and Canada.  You’ll know them as Ice-wine (or Eiswein).  The frozen grapes are pressed immediately as the freezing captures a lot of the water in the form of ice and the grape juice that flows is very high sugar, just like our raisins in the above example.  The wine that is then produced has a similar high sugar, low alcohol profile, but with a bright fruitiness.

It’s probably no surprise that both of these approaches are expensive.  Hoping for mold or freezing grapes and then making wine from the little dribbles of super sweet grape juice is definitely not a low-cost approach.  When you are thinking about having one, try to keep in mind how much went into the final product.  It’s probably a value choice when you add it up.

Most sweet wines, Port, Sauternes, Moscato, Madeira are considered dessert wines. I have to say, after a big meal, many times I’ll opt for a nice dessert wine to end things.  It has that nice sweetness you can sometimes crave and not much alcohol.   This is a great area to purchase by the glass to avoid the big prices on a bottle of these expensive wines (unless you have a lot of friends at dinner).

There are a number of inexpensive wines that are sweet by design, or manufacture.  People have a sweet tooth and this goes back to our caveman days, because sweet things were dense in the calories we needed to survive.  Manufacturers of volume wines know this and they will add additional sugar to the wines to make them tasty and accessible.  Higher end wines will normally stick only to the natural sugars in the grapes (with a few exceptions).

Here’s the dirty little secret:  Most sweet wines usually don’t have any more calories than dry wines on a volume basis.  Even better, we normally have smaller servings of sweet wines.  Alcohol has around 8 calories per gram and sugar has around 4 calories per gram, which means when we convert 2 sugars into 1 alcohol, it’s an even calorie trade.  If you are avoiding sweet wines because of calories, you can jump in and indulge.  If you are a super-paleo cross fitter avoiding sugar, you need to skip the alcohol too (and what fun is that?). 

As an example (Thanks, Wine Folly):

Wine Calories from Least to Most (6 oz pours)

  • German Spatlese Riesling (Dr. Hermann “H” 2009)  110 calories, bottle 495 calories
  • Cabernet Sauvignon from France 160 calories, bottle 720 calories
  • German Auslese Riesling 160 calories, bottle 720 calories
  • Cabernet Sauvignon from California 175 calories, bottle 788 calories
  • California 16% Zinfandel (Bob Biale) 190 calories, bottle 855 calories
  • Australian Shiraz (Mollydooker The Boxer) 190 calories, bottle 855 calories
  • Chateau Y’quem 270 calories, bottle 1215 calories (note: standard serving size is only 2 oz which is 90 calories)
  • Ruby Port 310 calories, bottle 1395 calories (note: standard serving size is only 2 oz which is 103 calories)
  • Tawny Port 320 calories, bottle 1440 calories (note: standard serving size is only 2 oz which is 106 calories)

The next time you are considering dessert, pick a sweet wine and enjoy this delicious style of wine guilt-free, knowing you are having less calories than your friend with the pie ala mode!