What is Residual Sugar in Wine?

Sweetness in wine is called residual sugar and is usually measured in grams per litre (g/L). Residual sugar or ‘RS’ is from the natural grape sugars left in a wine after the alcoholic fermentation finishes. The more residual sugar remaining in a wine, the sweeter the wine is. It is certainly not due to the addition of sugar!

When the winemaking process begins, yeast consumes the natural sugars (glucose and fructose) present in the grape juice, producing alcohol, as well as a number of other compounds contributing to a wine’s aroma and flavor, such as carbon dioxide, various flavor compounds, and other compounds, such as glycerol, that soften the mouthfeel of a wine when tasted.

It is impossible to get residual sugar levels down to absolute zero at the end of fermentation, and there will be small amounts of both glucose and fructose remaining in a dry wine. The residual sugar remaining in a dry wine is usually around 0.3 to 2 g/L.

How Winemakers Control the Amount of Residual Sugar in a Wine

Winemakers can also choose to stop yeast fermentation at any point, resulting in a sweeter tasting wine, with natural sugar levels above 2 g/L.

To explain this further, the juice from grapes picked at a sugar ripeness level of 13 baumé will contain a total of 250 g/L of sugars.

If the winemaker chooses to allow the juice from these grapes to ferment through to dryness, the alcohol level will be close to 13%, and the RS will be between 1 to 2 g/L. This is a dry wine.

If the winemaker chooses to stop the fermentation when the alcohol reaches 11.5%, the resulting wine will then contain around 30 g/L of RS. This produces a wine that is described as medium sweet.

If the fermentation of this same juice is stopped earlier again, say when the wine has 8% alcohol, there may be up to 100 g/L of RS remaining in the wine. which is described as a sweet wine.

Winemakers in Australia can also sweeten a wine by adding grape concentrate, which is certainly legal and perfectly OK to do. (Grape concentrate is a concentrated version of grape juice made by extracting water out of the juice).

There is a clear distinction that has to be made between ‘commercial’ or ‘commodity’ wines made in large volumes and sold at relatively low prices through supermarkets in Australia and overseas, and the higher priced, ‘premium’ wines.

The RS levels of many of these cheaper wines (both white and red wines) are often between 4–10 g/L. Most people buying these wines would be unaware that part of the flavour and the softer mouthfeel that is appealing in these wines, comes from the fact that the wines are sweeter.

In comparison, the RS levels of many of the higher priced barrel fermented white wines and premium quality red wines are 1 – 2 g/L.

What is The Residual Sugar of a Dry, Off Dry or Sweet Wine?

Residual sugar levels vary in different styles of wine. ‘Dry’ and ‘Off Dry’ wines have residual sugar levels between 1 and 11 g/L of residual sugar. Noticeably ‘Sweet’ wines start at around 35 g/L and then go up from there.

If you would more detail about residual sugar, then this post ‘What is Residual Sugar in Wine?‘ by Wine Folly is well worth a read!

To sum up the varying levels of RS in a wine, and how it is ranked in regards to it’s sweetness level:

Dry                                                      0 – 4 g/L

Off Dry                                                5 – 11 g/L

Medium Sweet                                  12 – 35 g/L

Sweet                                                  Greater than 35 g/L

Range of Residual Sugar Levels in Wine