Sugar and spice, and all things nice!

I recently read an article in a leading wine magazine, that stated factory wines have over 200 additives in the final product. These are the wines that are produced in mass volume and essentially recipe wines. They’re oddly never affected by local climates, weather patterns or mother nature herself. Year in year out these wines taste the exact same. They’re the ‘Mc Donadization’ effect of the wine industry really. Branded wines that are created to appeal to a mass audience and therefore need to deliver the same flavours, styles, weights and alcohol levels every single year, irrespective of the weather. You could be led to believe that magicians work in these wineries! But sadly not. These wineries operate under a different set of winemaking commandments. They’re not sticking to the natural rules of producing an agricultural product. They are using synthetic ingredients to balance the books, so to speak.

These additives are used to increase colour, flavour and mouthfeel. One of the most commonly used is, of course, added sugars. These come in the form of cane juice, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit nectars, syrup, honey, malt syrup, maltose and so many more. They can allure the palate into thinking the wine is indeed richer and more fruit driven than it actually is. Therefore if you are producing millions of gallons each year, the quality of your fruit becomes compromised. Using lesser quality fruit will lead to bland wine. So the answer to your problems is solved by a little dash of this here, and a splash of that there, and so on and so forth. I am often reminded of the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where Gene Wilder throws a Puma trainer into a steaming liquid in a large stainless steel vat. When asked why he did that, he retorted with ‘gives it a little kick’. Who knows what goes on in many of these large scale wine factories, but suffice to say adding confected sugars is very much part of their arsenal.

You could argue that fact of why we need sugar at all in our wines. Why can’t we just consume low sugar wines as part of heath drive for better lives. But actually ‘natural’ sugar is the very heart and soul of wine and winemaking. Since the dawn of time winemakers have understood the binary relationships between the natural yeasts on the skins of the grapes and the natural sugars within the grapes. When these two come into contact with each other through crushing, they produce carbon dioxide and ethanol. This interaction is more commonly known as fermentation. Cheesy as it may sound this alcoholic fermentation ‘is where the magic happens’. When the juice is elevated from a type of cordial to a lifted, vibrant, fresh liquid that has weight and texture to it. It is where simple fruit juice is transformed, using heat to draw out flavour compounds that we often hear bandied around. Such as fruits, honey, flowers, oiliness, herbs, spices, even so far as tobacco and leather. I must say though, I do draw the line at crushed rocks! However understanding the symphony between natural sugars and flavours creates a deeper respect for its role in winemaking. Its paramount.

The sugar in our finished wine is called residual sugar. This is the sugar that remains after the yeast has gobbled up all the natural sugars it needs to create the balanced amount of alcohol required. This is why ripe, juicy berries in sunnier New World climates often produce higher alcohol wines. However, very often the producer may want to stop the fermentation early to create a lower alcohol wine, or an off dry style of wine to balance with possible very high acidity. The equilibrium is achieved by balancing the sugars and the acids. If we are classifying a wine as dry it has to have up to 6 grams of sugar per litre. Most of the red and white on our shop shelves are averaging between 2-4 grams of sugar per litre. If the fermentation has stopped early and they are making an off dry wine there is anything from 6-21 grams of sugar per litre. A sweet wine has 22- 75 grams of sugar per litre and very sweet is 75 plus.

Bearing in mind a can of Club Orange has 96 grams (the equivalent to 12 teaspoons per can)  of sugar per litre, the ole wine levels seem rather low. So how is that sugar in wine seems to get such a bad rep. The headlines often read that two glasses of wine per day is enough to hit your daily sugar limit. So surely consuming wines made with a gentler approach using natural sugars, are a vast improvement to the ‘cane syrup clan’. Some of the larger brand names are dolloping their wines with plenty of spoonful’s of sugar to add the weight, texture and flavour that their poor quality grapes just can’t manage. These confected sugars hit the tip of your tongue and lure you into a taste sensation that emulates candy canes, or opal fruits. But after this sweetened taste is gone, there is little left on the palate. The mid palate dies off and the finish is none existent. And to be fair we don’t even notice, because we are more often than not consuming our wines in a sub conscious manner. We are generally either chatting, or eating, or watching tv, or in a busy restaurant or bar. So it is easy to see why we just don’t realise the tricks of trade of commercial winemaking. In fact there is now a trend to drink wines that are technically off dry. Plenty of the infamous reds on the shelves in our shops have anything from 12-18 grams of sugar per litre. Now I generally don’t have any issue with a higher degree of residual sugar in the wine if it balancing with a high acidity. But when the sugar is dominating the flavour profile and is used a masquerade for bland grapes and poor winemaking, then I understand the ‘sugar police’ and agree that less is more.