New Year, New Marketing Claim: Why ‘Low-Sugar’ Wine Labels Are Misleading

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Here they come: the Keto ads, the low-carb, no-carb, carb-friendly products of every shape, size, taste, and texture. New year, new spate of articles and ads telling you that what you’re eating is full of nasty additives, unnecessary calories, and evil sugar. And in recent years, these ads have made their way into the beverage alcohol space with promotions for sugar-free and low-carb wines.

Billed as “no sugar added” or “naturally sweetened,” these products attempt to capitalize on the wellness trend with nebulous promises of a healthier drink. Often, there’s a silhouette of an athlete emblazoned on the label to reinforce the health benefits of this wine.

Here’s the thing, though: Making wine requires sugar. The fermentation process itself eliminates most of that naturally occurring sugar, and in many parts of the world, adding sugar after fermentation is frowned upon — and sometimes downright illegal. Plenty of wines are naturally low in sugar by their very nature. So, while it’s not untrue to label a bottle of wine as a “low-sugar” product, it’s a misnomer at best and misleading at worst. Instead of labeling one ingredient the villain, it’s more productive to consider how wine is regulated and labeled, and how it is altered.

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At its core, the fermentation process is simple: Yeast consumes the sugar that naturally occurs in grapes, and from this, ethanol and carbon dioxide are produced. The little yeast cells will happily munch on sugar and turn it into alcohol until all the sugar is gone or the yeast is removed. This is why, for the most part, higher- alcohol, low-intervention wines are naturally less sweet. The amount of residual sugar in a wine is a good indicator of how sweet it will taste; in Europe, for example, to be labeled a “dry” wine, it must contain less than four grams per liter.

It gets a bit more complicated, though, when we consider the process called chaptalization. Simply put, chaptalization is when sugar is added to a batch of wine during fermentation. It can also be used in Champagne method sparkling wines, in order to spur the second fermentation. Chaptalization is permitted, and sometimes even necessary, in cooler climates like Burgundy and Oregon when the grapes don’t ripen enough to create the necessary sugar to convert into alcohol. This doesn’t mean the end product will have a higher sugar content, though.

Adding sugar during any stage of the winemaking process is illegal in several warmer-climate regions, including California and Italy. But before you rush off to buy any old Napa wine, there’s one more thing to consider: Grape concentrate is permitted just about anywhere. The most common grape concentrate is an often-used but dirty little secret of wine production used in everything from bottom-shelf Syrah to high-end Pinot Noir. Mega Purple adds a bold splash of deep ruby color and a dash of sweetness to whatever red wine it’s dumped into, which allows winemakers at large brands to keep their product consistent from year to year.

For Katie Rice, owner of VinoTeca wine shop in Atlanta, Mega Purple is a four-letter word. “When you look at something like Mega Purple, you’re taking away from the actual consumers’ ability to decipher what they like and why, because what does Mega Purple do? It adds sweetness and color,” she says. “And so people don’t know what they’re drinking. You could have a Syrah from Lodi and a Pinot Noir from someplace I won’t mention, and they would look and taste exactly the same because they’re just loaded with food coloring and artificial flavor.”

Faced with so many additives, colorants, and a lack of transparency about what exactly we’re consuming, it can be hard to decipher what’s actually in a particular bottle of wine. There are some ways to make sure you’re not guzzling a bland, syrupy mess, the easiest of which is to simply ask your retailer. A good store owner or sommelier is intimately versed in what goes into each wine they sell, and will know which wines are produced with fewer additives and less intervention.

Liz Martinez, general manager and sommelier of Detroit’s Apparatus Room, has seen an increase in customers asking for low-carb and low-sugar wines. She steers them toward the “lighter, less serious styles” like “a zippy Pinot Grigio or a crisp Sauvignon Blanc.” Although she doesn’t sell any wines specifically marketed as low-sugar, she has sampled a few to test them out. “Some of the red wines and darker styles,” she says, “feel as though they are missing that stronger core that I am looking for when I am selecting a red wine. Mostly, I guess that I would rather just keep it simple with a wine that is maybe less complex, but still feels well made and harmonious.”

Because European winemaking and bottling requirements are, in general, stricter, Old World wines from cooler climates are a safe bet if you’re looking for a glass that is naturally low in sugar, says Rice. “Look for wines from places that aren’t going to have a ton of ripening time,” she advises, “like Germany, Austria, Willamette Valley, New York, and more high-altitude areas. That’s another great way to know that you’re going to have [naturally] lower sugar.”

Several specific varieties are naturally dry and more likely to contain minimal sugar. Brut nature or “zero dosage” Champagnes and Spanish Cavas by definition have no added sugar and less than three grams of residual sugar. Bone-dry whites like Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet, and Greek Assyrtiko are usually a safe bet. Among reds, many Burgundian wines come in on the dry side, including Pinot Noir, and an unaltered Spanish Tempranillo packs plenty of flavor without added sweeteners.

Rice also recommends shopping by region. Starting in January 2023, all wine produced in the European Union is required to list potential allergens on the wine label and provide a link (via QR code or website) that lists each ingredient in the bottle. And in late 2022, the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau announced that it would soon require similar disclosure on bottles sold in the U.S., which should make it easier for consumers to find out what’s in the bottle, including additives, allergens, sugar, and grape concentrates.

Her ultimate advice? Get to know your local sommelier or wine store owner, ask a lot of questions, and “look for the driest form of wine you can find.” Concentrate less on claims about sugar, she says, and more on passionate winemakers who let the grapes speak for themselves.

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