Is There Sugar in Wine – Understanding the Role of the Sweet Stuff in Italian Wine

No matter what Italian wine you drink, you will taste the influence of sugar. You might not realize it. In fact, when you’re drinking a particularly tannic wine you may believe that sugar played no part in the production process. But sugar is key to wine creation in so many ways that it simply couldn’t happen without this vital ingredient.

What you may not know is that the sugars used in wine production come in several forms. And each of these forms adds a little something different to the wine, making each extremely important.

So, we can answer the first question our article poses immediately – yes there is sugar in wine.

But now, we need to move on to the more important question.

What role does sugar play in the creation of Italian wine?

The Sugars in Grapes

Before production even begins, the main ingredient used to make Italian wine contains sugar. Grapes, like any fruit, contain natural sugars that develop as the fruit does. The development of these sugars is an interesting process that deserves further exploration.

It all starts with photosynthesis.

As grapes are grown, their vines capture sunlight to transform into food. This is the process of photosynthesis and it creates a form of sugar called sucrose. The sucrose is translocated into the grapes, where it essentially serves as a food source.

As the grapes begin ripening, the sucrose they contain is converted into two different types of sugar – glucose and fructose. This is a process called hydrolyzation and it involves a special enzyme that separates the sucrose into two different sugar types.

By the time the grapes are harvested, between 15% and 25% of them will be composed of these simple sugars alone. There are several other types of sugars created during hydrolyzation, though many of them are not fermentable in the same way as simple sugars.

The Fermentation Process

Why are the sugars in grapes so important?

It’s these very sugars that will eventually lend the wine produced using the grapes its alcoholic content. But before that can happen, the grapes need to be picked and crushed. This creates a type of grape juice that is loaded with the natural sugars that have developed inside the grapes over the course of the last few months.

With the juice created, winemakers add another important ingredient:


Yeast is actually a single-celled organism, which may sound unappetizing at first. However, it plays a crucial role in wine production because yeast eats sugar. So, the producer adds yeast to their grape juice, after which it starts to consume the sugars in the liquid.

This is fermentation.

Producers use yeast for more than lowering sugar volume and sweetness. When yeast consumes sugar, it creates a waste product that is found in every bottle of wine.

Again, it sounds unappetizing, right?

That waste product is alcohol!

As such, the sugars in your wine are converted into alcohol by yeast. The more sugar in the juice, the higher the alcoholic content, assuming the yeast doesn’t die before it can consume all of the sugar.

Residual Sugars

We touched on yeast dying above.

This situation occurs when two things happen:

  • The sugar content in the wine is exceptionally high
  • The wine’s alcohol volume rises to a level that the yeast can’t live in

The latter issue is especially important. Winemakers need to balance their use of yeast to ensure the organism doesn’t die inside the wine. They often do this by removing the yeast before all of the sugar in the wine juice is consumed. As such, most wines contain residual sugars, with the amount of these sugars left over determining how sweet or dry the wine is. A wine that has almost been drained of its sugars will have a dry taste without too much sweetness. One that contains a lot of residual sugars may be very sweet, though some producers take further measures to dry the wine.

Adding More Sugars

Generally speaking, winemakers will avoid adding more sugar to their wine. However, there are a few exceptions to this.

Chaptalization is one of them.

If a winemaker wants an even higher alcohol content than they currently have, they may add some sucrose to the wine. This gives the yeast more sugar to feed from, leading to a higher alcohol volume. This is often done with grapes that don’t produce many natural sugars themselves, thus allowing the winemaker any additional level of control over their end product.

Dosage is the second reason.

This sounds like winemakers add sugar to make their wines sweeter. That isn’t the case. Dosage is a special technique used in the creation of Champagne and other sparkling wines. It involves dissolving sucrose into the still wine juice left behind from the creation of the sparkling wine. This juice is added to the bottle along with the sparkling wine. Secondary fermentation then occurs, with the sucrose in the “dose” playing a crucial role in giving the sparkling wine its bubbles.

Sugar is Crucial to Making Wine

So, do winemakers add sugar to wine in an effort to make it sweeter?

Not really. Though the volume of residual sugar in a wine can contribute to its sweetness, you generally won’t see Italian winemakers standing over vats with bags of sugar. Sweetness is only one of the things that sugar content influences.

Instead, sugar plays the crucial role of being the food that yeast consumes to generate alcohol. Without the natural sugars in grapes, winemakers wouldn’t be able to create alcoholic beverages. The more sugar that is in a wine during its earlier stages, the more alcoholic it will tend to be unless the producer removes their yeast earlier and allows the residual sugars to become dominant notes.

Sugar also plays a crucial role in the production of many sparkling wines, to which it is added to encourage secondary fermentation.

Simply put, you would not have wine without sugar.

Now, let’s explore some products of these interesting sugar uses. The Xtrawine collection contains thousands of stunning Italian wines for your perusal.


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