Sugar High: A Quick Guide to Sweet Red Wine

A photo of a red wine surrounded by chocolate
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Though most red wine falls into the dry category, there are a handful of unique sweet red wines from around the world worth knowing and drinking.

A wine’s sweetness is determined by its residual sugar (RS) level, or the amount of sugar that remains in a wine after fermentation is complete. This is expressed commonly in grams per liter (g/L). Wines are categorized generally into the following based on this measurement: dry, off dry, semisweet, medium-sweet and sweet.

A wine with less than 10 g/L RS is generally considered dry, though more commonly they clock in at 2–3 g/L RS. Those with 10–30 g/L RS are off dry. A bottle with more than 30 g/L RS runs you fully into the sweet side of the spectrum. For reference, Château d’Yquem, the renowned sweet wine from Sauternes in Bordeaux, boasts around 120–150 g/L RS.

Grapes ready for harvest in Italy
Grapes ready for harvest in Italy / Getty

A fruity wine isn’t necessarily a sweet wine. For example, Grenache may taste of sun-ripened strawberries, but the wines are typically dry in terms of residual sugar.

How does a red wine end up sweet? The winemaker didn’t simply empty a bag of white superfine Domino sugar into the vat. Before the grapes even get to the winery, the fruit can develop additional sugar in the vineyard. This can happen through methods like longer hang time on the vine or through desiccation, where grapes are dried to concentrate natural sugars.

Regardless of sugar levels, after grapes are pressed, fermentation begins. If it ends before the yeast converts all the juice’s sugar into alcohol, the wine is left with lower alcohol than if it had been fermented dry. With that, the wine also has a higher residual sugar. The point at which fermentation is stopped determines a wine’s residual sugar and alcohol level.

Your Definitive Guide to Sweet Wines

A wine with a low alcohol by volume (abv) will likely be sweet. Conversely, a wine with an abv over 17–18% was probably fortified with a neutral spirit to stop the fermentation early. It’s a strong wine that also contains a fair amount of residual sugar, like a Port or vin doux naturel.

Sweet red-wine types can range from light to full in body. Several American wine brands push the limit of “dry table wine” with as much as 6 g/L RS because consumers enjoy the style. That boost of residual sugar accentuates the impression of ripe, round fruit.

Other brands simply label their red table wines as sweet. They might use grape concentrate at fermentation to kick up the sugar level, chill the wine down and add sulfur dioxide (SO2) to halt yeast activity. Then, they will fine and filter the wine heavily to control for refermentation and microbial activity in the bottle. These wines occupy the lower-priced, entry-level category.

A recent trend has been American sweet-red blends. Generally from the West Coast, these offer pronounced fruity, jammy fruit aromas and flavors, as well as confected sensations of jelly or preserves, chocolate, baked fruits or reduced sauces.

There are several international sweet red-wine styles of quality and character that are good to know.

Vineyards in Banyuls, France
Vineyards in Banyuls, France / Getty

Sparkling sweet reds include Brachetto d’Acqui and some Lambruscos from Italy, and Shiraz from Australia.

Often brilliant ruby in color, Lambrusco has intense cherry aromas and comes in sweetness levels from secco (dry) to amabile (off dry or slightly sweet) and dolce (sweet). The wine, traditionally from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, is produced in numerous appellations, each with distinct characteristics and typicity.

Lambrusco had a surge of popularity in the U.S. a few decades ago. Remember “Riunite on ice?” Today, beautiful, complex Lambrusco can be found across the country. Pick up a few bottles to see which styles and producers you like.

The name Brachetto d’Acqui does double duty as both the name of the grape and the wine. Made in Piedmont, some consider it the red counterpart to sparkling sweet Moscato. Low in alcohol, the wines are off dry to very sweet, and they boast attractive floral and strawberry aromatics.

Deeply hued and brambly like its namesake grape, sparkling Shiraz, or Syrah, was made popular in Australia. These wines can be produced in both dry and sweet versions, so check for more information on a producer’s website or ask a retailer or sommelier before purchasing. Aussies often enjoy them with barbecued meats.

The most notable sweet fortified red wine is Port. Made in Portugal’s Douro Valley, producers stop fermentation with the addition of a neutral clear spirit like brandy, which kills yeast activity and increases the alcohol level. Port comes in many styles, from ruby to vintage to aged tawnies.

A vin doux naturel (VDN) from France has a similar production method to Port. Fermentation of the base wine is stopped with neutral grape spirit. Though many grapes are used to make VDN, the red-wine version employs Grenache typically, and comes from regions in Languedoc-Roussillon like Maury and Banyuls.

Published on August 27, 2020
Topics: Wine Basics