Some people prefer mouth-tingling dry wines with bold tannins. Others prefer styles at the sweeter end of the spectrum. Even dry wines usually have some sweetness to them, however, which balances their flavor and makes them more full-bodied. So, where does wine sweetness come from? Is there an easy way to make wine sweeter?
What Makes Wines Sweet?
During fermentation, yeast consumes the sugars from the grapes to produce alcohol. If fermentation continues until all the sugars are gone, this produces what we call a dry wine. Fermentation can be stopped while some sugar is left, however. These residual sugars are what bring the natural sweetness to wines. When the fermentation stops will determine where it falls on that spectrum of wine dryness and sweetness.
Techniques for Creating Sweeter Wines
Stopping fermentation isn’t the only technique that winemakers use to produce sweet wines. In fact, some styles of wine are defined by the techniques used to make them sweeter.
Ice Wine (Eiswein)
Ice wine is a delicious, sweet dessert wine that primarily comes from Canada and Germany. To produce these wines, the sweetness of the grape is concentrated directly on the vine by allowing it to freeze solid. That’s why the production area is limited: the temperatures must get to -7°C or -8ºC (around 20ºF). At these temperatures, the water in the grapes freezes, but the sugars do not. The winemakers then quickly harvest the grapes and crush them while they’re still frozen. This results in a concentrated wine that is very sweet.
Straw Wine (Appassimento)
The technique for making straw wine is quite different from that of ice wine, though the general principle is similar. It’s just better suited to hotter, sunnier climates. With this technique, the harvested grapes are left out to dry in the sun, either hung on rooftop racks or placed on straw mats (appassimento). Because the grapes lose so much moisture as they shrivel in the sun, the process concentrates the sugars. Think for a moment how sweet raisins are. That’s essentially what winemakers press and ferment for these wines.
These are the techniques for making the well-known Corvina wines Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella. Amarone is a delicious, rich red wine resulting from complete fermentation after this process. Recioto della Valpolicella is the sweeter version, if the winemaker stops fermentation.
Noble Rot (Botrytis cinerea)
This one will probably sound a little crazy, but this method involves infecting the wine grapes with a grey fungus called Botrytis cinerea. Under the wrong weather conditions, this fungus can destroy the grapes and make them unusable. Under the right conditions, however, the result is magical.
Some vineyards count on natural exposure to Botrytis cinerea, while others infect the grapes directly. The grapes take up the fungus when they’re ripe and the infection makes tiny holes in the skin. These holes allow water from the grape to evaporate, causing the grapes to shrivel. Sound familiar? It’s just like ice wine and straw wine in that it results in a starting grape for the winemaker that has more concentrated sugars. It works well just as long as the weather is dry enough for the evaporation to occur. There is evidence for this method of making “botrytized wines” that dates back hundreds of years.
Some sweet dessert wines are made through fortification with spirits, usually brandy. Yeasts typically can’t survive alcohol levels much higher than about 15%. (This is why most wines have between 12-15% ABV.) When the winemaker adds high-alcohol spirits before fermentation is complete, it leaves behind a lot of unfermented sugar. Once again, it’s this residual sugar can gives these wines their intense sweetness.
Madeira, Marsala, Port, and Sherry are popular examples of wines made this way. As you know, not all Sherry wine is sweet. If the winemaker waits until fermentation is complete before adding the spirits, the result will be a dry Sherry.
Tips for Home Winemakers
Commercial wineries have the resources to closely monitor the fermentation process, so they can stop it when the wine gets to the desired level of sweetness or dryness. If you’re a home winemaker, you likely don’t have this luxury. It’s pretty easy to get a batch that gets too dry. If this happens, you have several options for making your wine sweeter.
Use a Wine Conditioner
Wine conditioners are handy for sweetening homemade wines that have too harsh of a finish. They contain non-fermentable sugars which can transform a dry wine into a sweet one, if you add the right amount. Timing is obviously important, as well. You should add the wine conditioner after fermentation is complete, just before bottling. If you add it too early, you may end up with the opposite problem and have a wine too sweet to drink.
Supplement with Grape Concentrate
If you prefer, you can use grape concentrate to sweeten wine. Both red and white grape concentrates are available. Unlike wine conditioners, these concentrates still have fermentable sugars. So, you should definitely add metabisulfite (sometimes more than one dose) to halt further fermentation. Otherwise, any remaining active yeast cells will ferment those sugars and you’ll lose the any sweetness you’ve added. You should add both the grape concentrate and the metabisulfite right before it’s time to bottle.
Supplement with Fruit Juice
You can also sweeten fruity wines directly with fruit juice. In this case, you can simply add the juice, stir, and taste, and count on it remaining much the same. This is because mass-produced fruit juices contain preservatives (including metabisulfite) to prevent fermentation. Between that and the metabisulfite you’re likely using anyway, it’ll have much the same effect and be fairly stable.
Use Sugar to Sweeten Your Wine
Sugar is one of the easiest things for yeast to ferment, so this is a risky proposition. Any active yeast cells left will respond with gusto, potentially giving your wine carbonation issues. This can apparently happen even if you’ve dosed it well with metabisulfite. The other issue is flavor. Because table sugar is added after fermentation and doesn’t come from grapes, it doesn’t integrate well with the other flavors. Instead of tasting like a pleasant, sweet wine, you may be able to pick out the distinct flavor of the table sugar. So, using sugar to sweeten wine isn’t ideal, but you can technically do it if you want to.
Tips for Wine Drinkers
It’s happened to most everyone at least once: you’ve grabbed a bottle of wine that you didn’t like. Maybe it wasn’t quite your style. If you’re hoping to sweeten your store-bought wine because you don’t like the taste, we have a few tips for you, as well.
Chill the White Wines, Aerate the Red Wines
Drinking wine at the right temperature can make all the difference. Before you contemplate sweetening your wine, be sure to give it every chance to shine on its own.
White wines and rosés are generally best between 49°-55°F, though cheaper or less complex wines are better at lower serving temperatures. Red wines are best between 62°-68°F. You should keep in mind that while this is relatively warm for wine, it is still cooler than what is typically considered room temperature (70°-72°F).
You should also either decant the red wine well ahead of time or use an aerator to let it breathe. This will temper the tannins and make it less harsh on your palate. If the wine is dry but still has residual sugars, you may be able to taste them better.
Blend it with Another Wine
Many wines we love are blends anyway, right? If you wish to make the wine you’re drinking sweeter, you can certainly experiment by blending it with others. The timing of blending is one of the keys to balancing and melding the flavors properly, so you’re unlikely to get a wine that knocks your socks off if you’re just mixing two wines before drinking. That said, if it saves your wine and makes it drinkable, it might be worth a try.
Make Mulled Wine
If it’s a red wine, you can possibly salvage it by turning it into a mulled wine. These recipes usually contain sugar, honey, or maple syrup to sweeten them, as well as a variety of spices, fruits, and liquor. Mulling spices vary depending on the region and recipe, but you’ll commonly find warm, wintry choices like allspice, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, nutmeg, and vanilla. Figs, apples, raisins, ginger, and orange peel also add sweetness and floral notes. All this plus the brandy, sherry, or port, and you’ll forget all about that overly dry wine you started with.
If mulled wine is the cold weather answer, sangria is the warm weather answer. Sangrias are simple to make and given that it’s such a popular party drink, most of what you’ll find are batch recipes. That way you can turn the entire bottle of wine into something you and your friends will enjoy.
Sangrias typically have a wine base, sometimes containing some liquor, and soaked fruits. Recipes commonly have apples, oranges, lemons, grapes, berries, peaches, pineapple… Nearly any fruit that you can think of, really. They’re often sweetened with sugar or fruit juice and flavored with liqueurs. There are so many interesting sangria recipes out there, too, that it’s hard to find an excuse not to try one of them. We have many great sangria recipes on our site, including both red wine and white wine versions.
Please Do Not Add Sugar to Wine Before Drinking
There are some rogue web pages out there suggesting you simply stir a spoonful of sugar into a glass of wine that you don’t like. Please don’t do this. We suspect that the people posting this suggestion have never tried it.
If the above options don’t sound appealing, then don’t panic. Just pass the bottle of dry wine onto a friend and pick up a sweeter style next time. Our beginner’s guide to sweet wines will help get you started.