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We Need to Talk About the Important Role of Sugar in Wine

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Low- and no-sugar wines, often marketed with a “better for you” positioning, aim to appeal to health-conscious wine lovers. Consumption of these wines can be tied to other movements, too, including keto, low-carb, organic and vegan diets.

While almost every dry wine on the market is low in residual sugar, the wines that are labeled and marketed as low- or no-sugar are deliberately produced from vineyard to bottle with the aim of lowering the amount of sugar, carbohydrates and alcohol in each serving.

The number of brands devoted to this mission seems to increase exponentially with each passing month, but it wasn’t always this way. Whether the trend was forecast by a savvy marketing team or developed in response to an observed need, low-sugar wines took time to bring to market.

“We started to hear about a trend towards lower alcohol when we were attending ProWein in 2019,” says Heidi Scheid, executive vice president of Scheid Family Wines, which produces Sunny With a Chance of Flowers. The brand offers five varieties, with no sugar and 85 calories per glass.

“Personally, I was invested because I was always on the hunt for lower alcohol wines,” she says. “I needed a weekday wine that I could drink a few glasses of and still get up at the crack of dawn for a run. So it became a topic at our internal product innovation meetings at first. The zero-sugar part of Sunny was actually more of a hunch.”

And yet, sugar plays a significant role in wine production, regardless of whether the finished pour is sweet or dry or somewhere in between. To understand low-sugar wines, then, you have to dig into how they’re made and what actually ends up in your glass.

Sugar’s Important Role in Wine

Without sugar, there would be no wine.

It’s often stated that all wine begins in the vineyard, and so is the case for sugar in wine. As grapes ripen, photosynthesis breaks down sucrose in leaves into glucose and fructose, and transfers it to the berries. While sugar is rising within the grapes, acids and pH levels also change. The more sunlight and daytime heat grapes receive, the faster they will ripen.

The fermentation process entails yeast consuming the naturally occurring sugar in grapes and producing ethanol and carbon dioxide as a result. Yeast will continue to transform sugar into this type of alcohol until the sugar is completely digested or the yeast is destroyed or removed—the latter results in wine with residual sugar.