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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!

  • Chris, this post was incredibly insightful. Really look forward to the continuation of “The Context Collection”

  • Great post Chris,

    Another thing that helps clarify this is to know how much RS is in other beverages. While a halbtrocken riesling can have up to 18 g/l if it has very high acidity and a typical Champagne may have 10-12 grams, here are some examples of other beverages—or maybe we should start calling them dessert beverages.

    Coca-Cola - 108 g/l
    Apple Juice - 101 g/l
    Orange Juice  88 g/l
    Milk - 50 g/l

  • Yikes! These sugar levels give me an excuse to drink more wine. 

  • It's only fitting that such a sweet guy would start off this series with a post on sugar; I might have to contribute a post about dryness.

  • This is great.  I look forward to more Chris!  

    Can of worms but this makes me wonder about other things that balance or counteract each other in your taste perceptions to make a wine or match a wine with food.  Like the interaction with alcohol/tannin and acid, and sweetness with spiciness.   If alcohol acts like sweetness, wouldn't you need higher acid to balance higher alcohol?  Spiciness gets masked by sweetness like acid, why do high alcohol wines not work as well with spicy food, or do they?

  • The above examples are also good demonstrations of acid - sugar balance correct (although, perhaps balance isn't the best word here)?

    Coca-Cola: PH 2.5

    Apple Juice: PH 3.3 - 4

    Orange Juice: 3.3 - 4.2

    I've heard that Coke without the phosphoric acid to balance the sugar would be so sweet you would likely hurl from trying to drink it.

  • I haven't seen any dogmatic sources say so, but I'd definitely agree that acid does balance alcohol. I'd argue it's one of the main reasons you don't perceive the (relatively uncommon) wines high in both as being as boozy as they are: Barolo; Savennieres; Jurancon Sec; and dare I say, heavily acidified Aussie reds, etc.

  • One other thing to consider is that people vary drastically in how sweet they perceive alcohol to be, so there's definitely individual variation to how potent this effect is.

  • Awesome! Glad you found it helpful.

  • Wow, these are crazy. Most surprising is the milk to me, and I thought Coke may be higher. Thanks for these.

  • Good question and I agree with , but would also add that you have to consider the "heat" factor of alcohol too, which at higher levels paired with spicy foods will overwhelm the sweetness of ethanaol/glycerol.

  • No wonder Coke destroys teeth. High sugar and super low pH. Nutty!

  • One thing to remember with milk and most milk based products is that they must list sugar on the label no matter what kind of sugar is present.  50g of sugar in milk does not mean that dairy farmers are sweetening up milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products to appeal to consumers... it means that these products contain lactose.  It is true that our bodies break lactose down into glucose and galactose (mostly broken down later into glucose) so it may be a moot point.  Just wanted to provide context as the sugar listed in milk is often misunderstood by people avoiding sugar for dietary or other reasons. 

    The fruit juices also contain mostly fructose and smaller amounts of glucose.  Not advocating for these beverages, I just think that it's important to differentiate between "naturally occuring" sugars and raw sugar or corn syrup. These different types of sugars also have very different sweetness levels and interact with the other components of their given beverages differently.