Making Sweet Wines
By Ed Kraus
Making your wines sweet is a deceptively simple and straight forward process. But, because there always seems to be a few questionable wine recipes or ideas flying around for making a sweet wine, I decided to go over some of the basics. Hopefully this will clear up some of the confusion and misconceptions surrounding this process.
The first thing that needs to be understood is that any sugar you add at the beginning of a fermentation should have nothing to do with how sweet your wine will turn out. This sugar is added simply for the wine yeast to turn into alcohol.
The "Potential Alcohol Scale" that is on almost all wine making hydrometers are used to verify that the correct amount of sugar is being added to obtain the alcohol percentage you desire. If the fermentation goes as planned, the wine will be dry (without sugar) or close to dry when done fermenting, but more importantly, at the specific alcohol level you intended.
Sweetening can then be added to the wine to taste. A stabilizer such as Potassium Sorbate should also be added at this time to inhibit any re-fermenting that the new sugars may unintentionally feed. By adding your beginning sugar in this way and then sweetening later on, you gain complete control over both the wine's sweetness and its final alcohol level.
Now granted, if you add more sugar to the fermentation than the wine yeast can handle, the remaining sugars will contribute toward the wine's sweetness. This would be alright except that quite often the wine ends up too sweet for most peoples taste with no way of correcting it. Secondly, if a stabilizer is not added to wines prepared in this way, they may decide to ferment again, sometimes even several months after being bottled. This can be an equation for a big mess.
The highest level of alcohol I would ever depend on obtaining from the initial sugars added to a fermentation is 13%, and that's assuming you have a healthy, vigorous fermentation. Shooting for alcohol levels that are beyond this is possible, but always in question.
So as you might start to see, piling on the sugar at the beginning of fermentation, in reality, gives you little control over how sweet the wine is actually going to be.
What To Sweeten With?
This first thing that needs to be pointed out is that anytime you add sugar to a wine for sweetening and the fermentation is complete, it is of great importance that you add a wine stabilizer such as "Potassium Sorbate" at the same time. Otherwise, the newly added sugars can potentially make the wine re-ferment causing it to become dry tasting all over again.
Sweetening your wine with regular store-bought cane sugar is perfectly okay and is what most people use. But, I thought I would mention some other ideas that have been used successfully by some other home winemakers and myself.
Corn Sugar in not quite as sweet as cane sugar you buy from the store, but seems to give the wine a more crisp, cleaner flavor. This would be a good choice for most white wines or more generally, wines with a lighter, more delicate flavor.
Honey can also be a be used to sweeten your wine. For example, use raspberry honey to sweeten a raspberry wine. Very effective.
We also offer a Wine Conditioner that makes sweetening your wine very simple. It is a heavy syrup with stabilizer already incorporated into it. You just add to taste.
Wine concentrates quite often are appropriate as a sweetener and will also enhance the wine's flavor. Also, consideration should be given to the fact that the wine's acid level will be increased by the natural acids in the concentrate.
Fresh Fruit Juices can be used in the same way as concentrate. Grape, apple, pear all work very well. Fresh fruit juice is quite often the best choice when sweetening harsher wines such as elderberry.
Artificial Sweeteners need to be mentioned here as a precaution. Sweeteners such as Equal and Sweet 'N Low do not bond well on their own with liquids. Pop manufacturers use binders to keep these artificial sweeteners suspended. If added to a wine that has been stored these types of sweeteners will need to be stirred up off the bottom before serving.
By all means experiment. If you have a 5 gallon batch, take off a measured quart and add a measured amount of sweetener of your choice to it. I you like the results, multiply your efforts to the rest of the batch. If not, pour it back in with the rest and start all over.
Ed Kraus is a 3rd generation home brewer/winemaker and has been an owner of E. C. Kraus since 1999. He has been helping individuals make better wine and beer for over 25 years.