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Let's talk about context... and sugar! A new regular posting from Chris Tanghe, MS.

In my frequent travel teaching Guild masterclasses, there is one question I field regularly and would like to take some time (and several postings) to address: What is the most effective way to study? I wrote a post on my methods last year that you can revisit here

To begin to address this question, I like to focus on one aspect that I see as core to many study approaches, and perhaps one of the most effective tools we can sharpen: context. Context provides meaning and background, and makes information easier to retain and recall by giving it anchor points. Without context the factoid is simply memorized, floating around your cranium, often jumbled on recall or regurgitated with a sigh of relief. So how do we include context? We ask for detail and connection at every opportunity!  Why?  How?  When?  Such questions usually take a lot of research to explore, and often much time, but in the long run it is the following of these threads that save you frustration and despair as you come to comprehend the full story rather than the stage directions or footnotes alone.

What I hope to accomplish with this regular discussion are quick lessons rich in context, opening opportunities for discussion and possibly shedding some light on the "whys."  For the next few postings I will attempt to give detail and context to the topic of sugar, with this first one honing in on "RS" or residual sugar.

We refer to RS almost always in grams per liter or g/l, whether we are talking about dosage in Champagne, Riesling or Sauternes. So, what is a gram-per-liter, exactly? What does it look like? What do those numbers mean on the palate, and what does that mean to a consumer?  How do we create context to understand this? Here, this opens up not only a visual to associate with a number, but also extends to requirements for residual sugar minimums/maximums, must weight stipulations, overall perception of sweetness, and how to describe RS.

First, let's establish a sense of scale.  We all are familiar with what a liter/litre looks like, whether you're an avid hiker drinking water from Nalgene bottles or crushing crown cap Berger Gruner Veltliner on a hot summer day.  Now to visualize one gram per liter, or about a 1/4 teaspoon of granulated sugar in a liter of wine. Our threshold for perceiving sweetness in wine is generally 4 g/l, although of course we are all built with slightly different sensitivities.

Aside from our individual palates, there are other factors than can interact and affect how RS presents, namely acidity and alcohol.  High acid levels will diminish the effect of sugar, which raises our threshold of perception. So a high acid wine, such as Riesling or Champagne, has a wider spectrum for RS that will be perceived as a "dry" wine. This is why Grosses Gewachs have an allowance of 9 g/l of RS. Do those wines ever taste sweet? Definitely not! That's because they are rocking 10 g/l of TA (more on that in another post)! High acid wines such as these require a degree of RS to make them drinkable, rather than giving you the impression that they will rip your face off.

On the flip side, alcohol itself has a degree of sweetness, and can accentuate RS in a wine. As an experiment, take ethanol and dilute it to varying degrees with water and the sweet character will fast become apparent. This is why higher alcohol wines are often described as "sweet" by your average consumer, even if they have zero RS, but especially if they contain a couple grams. Varieties that can achieve higher ripeness levels more readily, such as Grenache or Zinafandel, regardless of being grown in the old or new world will often come off this way on the palate. Also important to consider are tannin, which can help offset the perception of RS with its astringent character, as well as CO2 with its bitter effect.

In the end it's not necessarily about the RS number, but how that RS is interacting with other elements in the wine. I hope this posting serves as a good start to get you thinking about sugar in wine - more to come soon!