All wines include sugar and yet not all wine taste sweet. And, if you’re fond of sweeter wines, you’re likely to be drinking a white wine rather than a red. For many wine connoisseurs, sweetness is not often associated with red wine which is more commonly known for its bolder, sometimes more bitter taste.
If you look at a wine sweetness chart, you’ll notice more white wines listed under the “very sweet” category than reds. The same charts will show more red wine styles under the “dry” categories than the white wines.
But, does this mean you can’t get a sweet red wine? And, if you can, what does it taste like? Let’s talk about red wine sweetness and what makes a wine sweet. We’ll also talk about the different sweet red wines and how they’re rated on a wine sweetness chart.
What Makes a Wine Sweet?
Wine is made through the process of fermenting white or red grapes. The sugar content of grapes is sufficient for converting to alcohol with the addition of yeast. Grapes also provide the required amount of tannins, acids, and ester to produce a natural wine.
During the crushing process, the skins are removed to prevent discoloration in white wine and to reduce the level of tannins. With red wines, the skins remain giving this wine style its coloring, flavor, and extra tannins during fermentation.
It’s during the fermentation stage of making wine that the sweetness level is most often determined. In simple wine jargon, sweet wine is the result of fermentation being halted before all the sugar content is converted into alcohol. This process is often managed by the winemaker producing certain types of wine.
While the sugar content is the main factor determining the sweetness (or dryness) of a wine, other components also contribute to how sweet red or white wines are. These include:
- The acidity of the wine
- Presence of tannins
- Alcohol content
Different grapes have varied levels of sugar content. Winemakers select the grape varietal for the type of wine they’re producing whether it’s a red or white wine. So, wines made with grapes with a higher sugar content will naturally be sweeter. Grapes which have been harvested after they’ve ripened on the vine will also be sweeter.
Some wine producers also use a sugar wine solution, otherwise known as a dosage, to add sweetness to wine. And, port or fortified wine is the result of combining the wine fermentation process with brandy.
Can You Get a Sweet Red Wine?
Red wine is often favored for its deep, robust flavors and heady aromas. And, it’s commonly expected to find red wines to be dry because of their levels of tannins, acids, and little residual sugar. Some of the more popular dry wines such as Merlot and Pinot Noir may be lighter with fruity aromas but they’re certainly not sweet on the taste buds!
However, there are sweet red wines to be found and enjoyed once you know what to look out for. And, when picking a sweet red wine, you have the option of different levels of sweetness. Use the red wine sweetness chart below to give you some ideas of the most popular red wines ranging from bone dry to very sweet.
Red Wine Sweetness Chart
|Red Wine Sweetness||Residual Sugar (RS)||Red Wine Examples|
|Bone Dry||< 1g/L||Chianti
|Off Dry||10-20g/L||Cabernet Franc
|Very Sweet||120-220g/L||Vin Santo Rosso
With the residual sugar content of red wines ranging from 1% in bone dry wine types to 20% in the very sweet ports, you’ll also find the alcohol content of these wines different.
Exploring Sweet Red Wine for Beginners
If you’re a newbie to exploring sweet red wines, you may be surprised by some of the styles under the varying sweetness categories on the chart. Let’s talk about some of the wines under the sweet categories and explore why they’re considered a sweet red wine.
Medium Sweet Red Wine Examples
On most red wine sweetness chart, you can expect to find Malbec listed under the medium or slightly sweet category. This is because it’s produced using highly ripened red grapes in regions with a warmer climate. Malbec is a full-bodied wine favored for its fruity flavors such as vanilla, plum, and blackberry.
The perception of sweetness in a wine is also influenced by the fruitiness of the grape and the tastes and aromas produced by it. Zinfandel is another popular medium sweet wine favored for its bold and fruity flavors making it seem sweeter than other red wines. However, its residual sugar content is relatively low.
The impression created by the bold, fruity flavors of the Shiraz makes you think you’re drinking a sweet red wine. This is why it’s often found in the sweet category of a red wine sweetness chart.
But, most wine connoisseurs will tell you it’s typically called a dry wine because of its low residual sugar content. Its alcohol content ranges from 10% to 14%. Australian Shiraz is sweeter than wines produced in other countries.
Sweet Red Wine Examples
An interesting sweet Italian red wine is the Brachetto, also favored for its fruity nuances in both taste and aroma. Wine drinkers, worldwide, enjoy this slightly sweet red wine which resembles raspberries and cherries, making it a popular drink to accompany a range of meals.
The Italian red wine, Lambrusco, is a semi-sweet wine that goes well with many dishes as well. It’s delicious fruity flavors such as blackberry and strawberry contributes to its sweetness while the acidity and residual sugar levels are well-balanced.
Rosso Dolce is a delicious, delicate sweet red wine produced in the wine region of Lombardy, found on the northern side of Italy. This wine is made with three different grape varietals and the blend creates a lightly fizzy wine loved by many drinkers. Flavors included raspberries, red currants, and blueberries while the honey-scented aroma contributes to the sweetness of this wine.
Rosso Dolce is an excellent sweet red wine for food pairing and can be enjoyed with most meals. This wine also has a low alcohol content of around 7% meaning it has a high residual sugar level. Winemakers of this drink have managed to balance both the sweetness and bright acidity of this red, turning it into a popular sweet blend.
Very Sweet Red Wines
Ice wine falls under very sweet red wines although it’s not easy to find. It’s made from frozen grapes which contributes to high sugar levels in this wine type. Grape varietals include the Cabernet Franc which can withstand below freezing temperatures. This extremely sweet wine which resembles honey falls under the same category as other dessert wines.
Other extremely sweet red wines include the Tawny and Ruby Port as well as the Vin Santo Rosso. All three dessert wines are made in Italy and are most suitable for wine drinkers with a sweet tooth. These red wines do not pair well with most meals and are ideally enjoyed on their own after dinner.
Residual Sugar Content of Red Wines
Very sweet red wines will have a sugar content of up to 220g/L (g/L). Sweet to semi-sweet red wines can be anything between 20g/L t0 120g/L. Bone dry wines have residual sugar of below 1g/L. Dry-tasting wines can have up to 10 grams of sugar per liter!
Wine producers are not legally required to show the residual sugar content on their bottles. However, some wineries do share this information on their packaging. Here are some examples of red wines and their residual sugar levels:
- Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel: A sweet wine produced in the wine estate of Lodi, Central Valley, California, it contains a residual sugar level of 3.4g/L but its flavors and aromas make it seem sweeter than it’s actually is.
- Yellow Tail Shiraz: An Australian wine, this sweet red wine is made with a blend of red grape varietals and has a residual sugar level of 12g/L.
- Jam Jar Shiraz: This South African wine is one of the sweetest shiraz type wines on the market with a residual sugar level of 54g/L.
Winemakers producing naturally sweet red wines perfect the art of balancing both the sweetness and acidity levels of the wine. But, they also rely on the perception of sweetness created by using different floral and fruity notes in their wines.
A red wine may fall under the “dry” category because of lower residual sugar content. However, its fruity flavors such as plum, berries, and cherries make it seem sweeter than it is.
Red Wine Sweetness: FAQ
Is Merlot Sweet?
Merlot is a popular red wine for beginners and is produced in many countries such as France, Italy, South Africa, Argentina, and South America. It’s often compared with Malbec but on the sweetness chart, Merlot would be placed in the dry category. The residual sugar content of Merlot is very low, resulting in a wine with a high alcohol level.
However, flavors resembling tasty, ripe fruits such as cherries and plums as well as raspberries and blackberries create the impression of a sweet red wine. Undertones of herbal and vanilla nuances contribute to making this wine seem like a sweeter red.
Is Cabernet Sauvignon Sweet?
Cabernet Sauvignon is another well-known red wine grown in most wine producing countries throughout the world. Compared to Merlot, Cabinet Sauvignon is a drier wine, with robust flavors. While it’s a lighter and more fruity wine compared to other red wines, its residual sugar level is very low.
The taste profile of a Cabernet Sauvignon is typically highly acidic with high tannin content. Its flavors include the robustness of dark fruits such as black cherry while hints of spice and green pepper are also noticeable.
The best indication of a sweet red wine is its residual sugar content. However, most winemakers don’t include this information on their packaging, making it difficult for beginners to determine the sweetness of a red wine. Flavors and aromas often trick you into believing you’re drinking a sweet red while in fact; they’re only creating the impression of sweetness.
By using a red wine sweetness chart to guide you, you’ll find a range of reds from sweet to very sweet available on the market. While most sweet red wines can be enjoyed with a meal, stick to very sweet ports for after dinner.