Written by: Tim Edison

Updated: November 2, 2023

Does White Wine Have More Sugar Than Red? Or Vice Versa?

red wine and white wine in glasses

For sweets and foods, sugar levels have everything to do with how much sugar the manufacturer decides to add and little else. For wines, it’s a little different. This is because artificial sugar isn’t typically just added to wines. But which is sweeter? Does white wine have more sugars than red? Or vice versa?

Instead, the sweetness that comes from wine comes from the natural sugar levels found in grape juices. When comparing wines, you’ll notice that some wines have a higher percentage of sugar while others have a lower percentage. The reason for the varying levels of sugar lies in the process of fermentation.

Understanding winemaking

Wines are made by taking grapes and making grape juice out of them. To convert the grape juice into wine, yeast is added. The yeast and grape juice are then stored as it begins to go through the process known as fermentation. It’s during the fermentation process that the yeast begins to eat the natural sugar inside the grape juice. While eating the sugar, yeast produces both CO2 and the most important ingredient: alcohol.

The longer fermentation process goes on, the more sugar is eaten, and more alcohol is produced. Basically, the wine becomes higher in alcohol content and lower in sugar levels the longer it is left to ferment.

Winemakers can stop the fermentation process at any point, letting the yeast eat most of the sugar or not so much. Fermentation can be stopped by chilling the wine to lower temperatures. This is because the yeast will ferment the wine faster in warm environments but will drastically slow when the wine is chilled. Winemakers will often chill the wine and then take the yeast out to stop fermentation altogether.

Other times, fermentation stops on its own. This can happen when the yeast dies because of alcohol toxicity. That is, the alcohol levels in the wine become too high for certain weaker yeast strains to survive in. This is especially true when the grape juice starts out with very high sugar levels; yeast won’t be able to eat through all the sugar before the alcohol levels get too high. Winemakers can also use certain chemicals to kill the yeast off.

Because yeast eats sugar and gives off alcohol, you’ll often find a relationship between how sweet the wine is and how much alcohol the wine has. This is why in most cases, you’ll find that wines with a lower alcohol content are very sweet, and also vice versa: Wines with a higher alcohol content are not so sweet. The amount of sugar that is left over after fermentation is called residual sugar or RS for short.

In cheap wines, you can sometimes find that artificial sugar is added to wines. This is why you can sometimes find wines with a high alcohol content that are still high in sugar as well. Wines that are a little pricier tend to stay away from adding artificial sugar, giving you more reason to go with a slightly pricier wine.

What’s the difference between red and white?

The difference between red and white wines is how they are made. White wines are made from white grapes and sometimes black grapes (since the juice in black grapes is clear). The grape juice is then separated from the grape’s seeds and skin, and only the grape juice is used to make the wine. The yeast is added to begin the fermentation process, and it’s then stored in a steel container. Occasionally an oak container is used instead. White wines will usually have a fruity or light taste; only occasionally will you find a white wine with a richer taste.

The taste can be attributed partially to the container in which it’s placed in. White wines keep their fruity and light taste because the steel container it’s kept in doesn’t allow oxygen to enter as an oak container would. When an oak container is used, the wine is exposed to oxygen, and it’s allowed to “breath.” The outcome is the wine obtains a richer and creamier smell and taste than wines made in steel containers.

A few examples of white wines are Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Champagne, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Viognier.

Red wine is usually made with red and black grapes instead of white grapes. The difference is that the grape’s seeds and skins are not removed as they are in white wine. Instead, they are kept inside with the juice during the fermentation process. The skin and seeds are what give it much of the different color and richer flavor from white wines.

Red wines are also typically stored in oak containers. As discussed before, the oak container allows the wine to be exposed to oxygen, and so you’ll typically find that red wines have a richer and creamier taste than white wines. Because of the porous nature of oak containers, the red wine will also partially evaporate, meaning the remaining red wine will have a higher alcohol level. Additionally, the oak wood also gives the wine what’s called tannins. Tannins are what gives red wines a slightly bitter taste and a dry sensation in the mouth and throat. The amount of tannins is further increased since tannins also come from the grape’s seed and skin that are mixed in with the juice.

Tannins also allow the wine to be aged for longer. This is why you’ll find that red wines are typically drier than white wines.

A few examples of red wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Merlot, and Malbec.

Red or white wine: which is sweeter?

Typically, you’ll find that white wine is sweeter than red wine. This is due to white wines usually being fermented for less time than red wine. However, that’s not to say that all white wines are sweeter nor that they’re sweet at all.

White wines can also be fermented for longer, and some are even placed in oak containers to get some of the tannins that red wines also have. This leads to dry white wines that are exposed to oxygen and have bitter tannins like red wines.

Then there are also red wines that can be fermented for a short period of time leading to sweet red wine. There isn’t a universal law that makes red wines dry and white wines sweet. But in general, you’ll find that white wines are sweeter. Because of the quantity of tannins in red wines (which give it that bitter taste), red wines also appear to be less sweet than they really are.

The sweetness of both red wines and white wines are also influenced by other choices made by the winemaker. For example, the harvest date of the grapes can drastically affect the sweetness of the wine. Grapes that are picked earlier will give the grapes a higher acidity level, lower alcohol, and a more bitter tannin. Picking the grapes later will lower the acidity, less bitter tannin and higher alcohol (or sweetness) levels.

What different levels of sugar in wines can you find?

The real indicator of how much sugar wine has can be derived from the type of wine it is.

Dry wines have the lowest content of sugar. Typically, you can expect dry wines to have between 0.1 - 0.3 percent residual sugar in them (or 1 - 3 grams per liter). The driest of the wines are called “bone dry”, and these are the wines that have no sugar content at all

Dry red wines leave a dry feeling in your throat and tongue and even a puckering sensation. A few examples of dry red wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Bordeaux, and Burgundy.

Dry white wines will keep the fruity flavors and smell of sweetness, but it’s only due to the acidity of the grape since no real sugar is in the wine. A few examples of dry white wines are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio.

Next are the semi-dry or off-dry wines. These wines are a little sweeter than dry wines, and they typically have 1 - 3 percent sugar (or 10 - 30 grams per liter). Some examples of off-dry whites are Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Grüner Veltliner, and Gewürztraminer.

Sweet wines are next on the scale of sweetness. These wines have 35 – 120 grams of sugar per liter. A few examples of sweets wines are Moscato and Sweet Riesling. Still, there are wines that are classified as very sweet. These wines will have anywhere from 120 grams of sugar per liter and above. These very sweet wines are often the wine beginners like for its fruity and intense flavors. Some examples of sweet wines are Tawny Port, Vin Santo Rosso, Banyuls, and Maury.

When wanting to learn more about a specific wine, you can review wine technical data sheets or tech sheets. Wine tech sheets include all the information about the wine, from acidity levels to the residual sugars in the wine.

All in all, while you can find dry white wines and sweet red wines, white wines are usually sweeter than red wines.


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About the Author Tim Edison

Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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