The worst part about this time of year is the annual January push to make everything seem as “healthy” as possible. Not only does this feed into toxic diet culture, but our products end up getting labeled with flashy but misleading claims. One such product that’s becoming more and more prominent is “sugar-free” or “low-sugar” wine. As great as that might sound in theory, we’re here to assure you that you can’t have wine at all without sugar.
Grapes, the main ingredient in wine, are packed with natural sugars. So sugar is present from the jump, but it’s also a necessary ingredient for creating the alcohol content of wine. Basic fermentation requires yeast and sugar—the yeast, a living microorganism, essentially eats the sugar and turns it into alcohol and CO2. (Fun fact: champagne was actually created via a fermentation accident that produced excess CO2, hence the bubbles.) What’s left is residual sugar, the amount of which determines whether you’re sipping on a more dry or sweet wine. But even in the driest wines, the sugar is still there.
Added sugars and artificial sweeteners can also make their way into wine, explains VinePair. One process is called chaptalization, which is when winemakers add more sugar during the fermentation process to give the end product a higher alcohol concentration or to spur a second fermentation that creates more CO2, as in sparkling wines. It’s also common in colder wine climates, like Oregon, where grapes can’t always ripen to contain the ideal amount of sugar.
Adding any other sugar after the fermentation process or in warm weather climates is mostly illegal, VinePair explains, with the one major exception being grape concentrate. Mega Purple is one such concentrate used in red wines to add a deeper ruby hue as well as sweetness. Most wineries will employ this ingredient to maintain consistency across their products, but it ultimately makes every varietal from a Pinot Noir to a Shiraz taste oddly similar.
The fact of the matter is that if you’re looking to eliminate sugar from your diet in the name of health, you should probably just avoid wine altogether. But if you’re simply checking labels to avoid getting an overly sweet glass of vino, there are other things you can look for.
In many cases, wineries like Dry Farm Wines and Avaline that lean into the “sugar-free” label are actually just natural or “clean” wines, meaning no extra sugar was added. That makes these wines less sweet and also void of the dreaded Mega Purple.
There are two other things to look for when trying to weed out sugar, according to VinePair: region and varietal. Colder regions where grapes have less time to ripen tend to naturally produce less sugar; any sugar added in the fermentation process (as mentioned above) is mostly used up in the creation of the alcohol. Look for bottles from places like Germany, Austria, Oregon, New York, and Burgundy, France.
Then of course, certain styles of wine are intentionally designed to be more dry. For white wines, that includes sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and pinot grigio. For red, try chianti, tempranillo, or cabernet sauvignon, but make sure the brand you’re choosing hasn’t added any artificial coloring that may contain more sweetness.
The most important thing to remember is that sugar is good for wine! Next time you grab a bottle, ignore the buzzwords on the label and focus on flavor. Wine is an indulgence, and the perfect bottle is the one that tastes the best.