Sweet Wine Guide

Some of the greatest wines produced are sweet and the range of styles is almost endless from delicate, Moscato d’asti, to full bodied, luscious vintage Port. The number of styles available can be confusing, and with poor guidance from labels, the following information is here to help you understand sweet wines.

How are sweet wines made?

All sweet wines have varying amounts of sugar which are directly related to alcohol strength and production technique. The finest sweet wines are made by concentrating the sugar in the grape through one of three ways. Grapes can be effected with noble rot (botrytis) which feeds off the water in the grape leaving only sugar behind. Grapes can be frozen on the vine, in the case of eiswine, or allowed to shrivel and dry on the vine, which again limits the amount of water in the fermentation process. Although different wine regions adhere to their own regulations, chaptalisation is rarely allowed to make a wine sweeter and should be used purely to increase the final alcoholic strength.

The Sweetness Scale

All wines have a degree of residual sugar in them post the fermentation process. The amount of sugar left determines the wine’s sweetness and often its style. Clear guidance to the level of sweetness is rarely clearly marked on the label, and it is often left to the general knowledge of the consumer to understand intrinsically what wine will be sweet. A break down of sweetness terms and the legal quantities of residual sugar shows the wide variety of wines available.

Sweetness Terms

On the 29th April 2002, the European Union laid down in law the terms that can legally be used on wine labels to indicate the sweetness of a particular wine. Whilst the legal definitions are quite technical, they essentially split wines into 4 groupings – dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet and sweet.

Sweetness Terms Legal Definition
sec, trocken, secco, asciutto, dry, tør, ξηρός, seco, kuiva, droog or torrt

residual sugar content not exceeding:

(i) 4 grams per litre; or

(ii) 9 grams per litre, provided that the total acidity expressed as grams of tartaric acid per litre is not more than 2 grams below the residual sugar content

demi-sec, halbtrocken, abboccato, medium dry, halvtør, ημίξηρος, semiseco, meio seco, adamado, puolikuiva, halfdroog or halvtorrt

residual sugar content in excess of the maximum set above but not exceeding:

(i) 12 grams per litre; or

(ii) 18 grams per litre, where the minimum total acidity has been set by the individual EU Member State

moelleux, lieblich, amabile, medium, medium sweet, halvsød, ημίγλυκος, semidulce, meio doce, puolimakea, halfzoet or halvsftt residual sugar content higher than the maximum set above but not more than 45 grams per litre
doux, süss, dolce, sweet, sød, γλυκός, dulce, doce, makea, zoet or sftt residual sugar content of at least 45 grams per litre

To complicate matters further, sparkling wines including Cava and Champagne, have a different sweetness scale, which is shown below:

Sweetness Terms Residual Sugar
Brut Nature - (no added sugar) up to 3 g per litre
Extra Brut up to 6 g per litre
Brut up to 15 g per litre
Extra seco/Extra Dry between 12 and 20 g per litre
Seco/Sec between 17 and 35 g per litre
Semi-seco/Demi Sec between 33 and 50 g per litre
Dulce/Doux more than 50 g per litre

A seperate system of grading sweetness levels exists in the Hungarian region of Tokaj-Hegyalja to describe Tokaji Aszú dessert wines:

Sweetness Terms Min Residual Sugar  
3 puttonyos 60 grams per litre
4 puttonyos 90 grams per litre
5 puttonyos 120 grams per litre
6 puttonyos 150 grams per litre
Aszú-Eszencia 180 grams per litre
Eszencia 450 grams per litre