Sugar in Wine... or Tartaric Crystals?
Lately, I have bought a few inexpensive wines at my local supermarket, some from the Rhone Valley, and some from Bordeaux and Loire Valley. And, strangely enough, most of them presented tiny crystal deposits in the glass and in the wine as I swallowed it.
At first, I thought that they were tartrate crystals, also known as “wine diamonds”, which are the result of tartaric acid, (naturally contained in grapes, and therefore in all wines), binding with potassium to form a compound called potassium bitartrate, a natural by-product of the winemaking process.
They mainly occur under certain conditions, mostly cold temperatures (meaning if the wine has been stored in a very cold cellar, shipped in a refrigerated container, or just left in the fridge for a few days). You can see them at the bottom of the cork, the bottom of the bottle or even floating in the wine.
However, they are not harmful to your health and their presence does not impact nor affected the taste of the wine either. On the contrary, tartaric acid is essential as it plays a prominent role in maintaining the chemical stability and balance of the wine, the wine’s colour and even influencing the taste of the finished product (pre-bottling).
Some producers/wineries may use methods such as cold stabilisation, filtration and more recently electrodialysis process, to get rid of them prior to bottling, even though some may remain in the bottle. Consequently, Tartaric Crystals can be viewed as an indication that the wine has not undergone any cold stabilisation or other treatment, which is a sign of quality for some people.
However, as I wanted to make sure they were just that, I put my fingers into my glass to catch a few and taste them without the wine. Rather than their usually sour taste, these supposedly tartrate crystals tasted sweet to me, and, thinking of it, some of these wines tasted unusually sweet too, could it be added sugar?
I mean, I know that dry still wine may contain around 240-280g/L of natural sugar (pre-fermentation, or 17-18 grams of sugar to obtain 1 degree of alcohol), and that residual sugar may vary between 0-10g/l depending on the winemaking methods and desired wine style.
And, I also know that, although less used now, Chaptalization was (and still is to some extent) a very common process, that has been done for centuries, in which sugar or grape concentrate is added to fermenting grape must, to boost the alcohol level of the finished wine, more especially in regions where grapes have difficulty to ripen consistently (and thus contain less natural sugar), and/or to facilitate the fermentation process by ensuring there's enough sugar for the yeast to convert into alcohol.
But I also know that cheaper, mass-produced wines often contain higher levels of residual sugars, as the producers of these wines often adjust the sweetness (and/or the sourness) of their wine by adding artificial acid or sugar, after the fermentation, which no effect on the alcohol content, but with a direct effect on the sweetness level and sensation.
Understandably, sweetness level and sensation are very subjective and therefore depend on a person’s perception, as each of us has his or her own level of taste and experience with sweetness. Yet, when a wine taste overly sweet, and it does not seem to correspond to the overripeness of the grapes used or the high temperatures of specific vintages, the idea or image of added sugar easily comes to mind.
More evidently, when supposedly tartrate crystals taste sweet rather than sour…
As you probably know, there is no mandatory regulation or law to indicate the sugar level and/or actual residual sugar content on a wine label. Maybe it is time to make it mandatory.
Many articles have been written on the subject of “sugar added” to wine, but these articles mostly refer to chaptalization, a step into the winemaking process consisting of adding sugar, beet or cane sugar, to the must. Or alternatively, adding concentrated grape must that can be either concentrated or concentrated and rectified (meaning cleaned), often called MCR (abbreviation for the French “Mout Concentré Rectifié”).
Yet, these articles mainly refer to residual sugar or added sugar during fermentation, but what about sugar added after the fermentation, prior to bottling?
Some of you may tell me it is done in Champagne and for other sparkling wines and beer to induce a secondary fermentation in the bottle. But I’m talking about dry still wine to which sugar is added just to sweeten the taste? Make it more appealing to a certain market (e.g., younger people and adults more inclined to sweeter taste).
Homemade wines are often subject to the addition of sugar (usually sugar cane, corn sugar or beet sugar are used as a sweetener), and as long as the sugar is completely dissolved and evenly blended into the wine. Then there is no problem.
But what about, like for my example, wines made in large quantities from wineries located in Appellations in well-known wine regions (in France for this scenario), where these practices are usually strictly regulated, and/or even forbidden, and yet, still exist and have been practised for decades with everyone closing their eyes and mouth about it?
Now, that is a very interesting subject that I have not found much written about, but would love to find answers for, more especially when tasting inexpensive wines from Bordeaux or the Rhone Valley that are overly sweet and present crystalized deposits that may appear to be tartrate crystals yet taste sweet….
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