The alcohol-residual sugar equation

I’ve just realised once more, sampling Fable’s Syrah and Starry Night (syrah-based blend with mourvedre and grenache) a basic truth that’s of relevance to a lot of Cape reds, and also whites to an extent. To wit: you can get away with ripe, even very ripe, fruit, and big alcohols, as long as the wine is fermented completely dry (as completely as possible). But have big alcohols and also too much sugar and you forgo anything approaching elegance and genuine seriousness. An obvious sweetness, compounded of alcohol and sugar, is, to my palate, the besetting sin of far too many Cape reds.

Your wine might be delicious and very acceptable to some people (I have to admit this – after all, Australia built an international reputation for at least some time on this basis, blockbuster Argentine Malbec seems to bamboozle a lot of tasters who should know better, and only too many Cape wines have followed suit), but if you’re aiming at something a bit more lofty, then no. Emphatically no.

In terms of numbers, I’d say a rule of thumb is that if your alcohol-by-volume is over 14%, then you must definitely keep your residual sugar level below 2 grams per litre. Well below, if possible.

I’d venture that no red wines can escape this rule. Some whites can, but it’s a perilous game of balance then, entirely dependent on the level of acidity.  The current fashion for “natural fermentations” has at least a theoretical charm (for example, Swartland Independent have made it a rule, although the links between terroir and yeasts are not, I think, firmly established). But, usually, if I had to choose between (a) a wine that was “naturally fermented” and had more residual sugar than the balance required and (b), a properly dry wine that needed yeast inoculation to get to that point – well, I’d unhesitatingly choose the latter.

Sadie Columella and Glenelly Lady May, are just two successful red examples that come immediately to mind. And I mentioned Fable as a lesson here. I’ll shortly be writing more about this amazing Tulbagh property, but happily affirm here that, although the reds have alcohols well over 14%, they are beautifully, properly dry. As a consequence their delicacy and poise is not compromised in the least – and, given their triumphant balance and dryness, I’d defy another set of abstract people, those who refuse to drink anything over 14% alcohol, to easily identify, blind-tasting, these wines as culprits.

5 thoughts on “The alcohol-residual sugar equation

  1. This makes a lot of sense, Tim.

    I love the Fables wines, and I’m looking forward to your longer write up. The Night Sky I think is a perfect example of what you describe. It has all the trademarks of a South African red – generous, ripe, with a full-fruited richness – but comes nowhere near being thick, sweet, and spoofy.

    I wonder if it is a case of South Africans having a bit of a sweet tooth. Although things have improved I remember when our yoghurts were made in gaudy technicolor, and the quality of our fruit juices were judged by how brightly coloured and sweet they were. It is perhaps not surprising that we can’t resist leaving an extra gram or two of RS in our wines.

    I am going to sound like an incorrigible snob now, but South Africa (horrid generalisation in 3, 2, 1) has a rather unsophisticated palate. I am almost certain South Africans, on average, add more sugar to their tea or coffee than, say, the French or Italians.

    I had a glass or two of the 2004 Kanonkop Paul Sauer yesterday evening. It is drinking wonderfully. Vibrant, fresh, complex and most of all balanced. At 14% and 1.3 RS it proves your point even further.

  2. I’m not sure about the Europeans with tea and coffee, Harry. It always seems to me that many many of them add sugar to their espresso and cappuccino. But I’ve often seen speculation that the basis for the (generalised) US liking for sweetness in their chards and cabs is being brought up on sweet, fizzy drinks.

  3. apparently in the old days most wines at the Cape was fortified. But perhaps it was necessary because the wines had to survive harsh conditions.

  4. It seems to be a global problem ,people are getting fatter in general, high fructose corn syrup in all mass produced foods ,naturally wine would follow ,really sad epidemic, in what you eat and drink that set the trend of majority consumption and production.

    • FYI according to a study that was done with lab rats ,it shown that they were more addicted to sugar and gluten than cocaine ,go figure.

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