Decoding the Sweetness Code

Q: When I shop for wines at BC Liquor Stores, I notice that there is a 'sweetness code' associated with each wine. What does this code mean and what does the number stand for?

A: Every wine on the shelves of BC Liquor Stores has a sweetness code indicated on the shelf label. This code helps identify the level of sweetness you can expect from your wine selection.

The sweetness code is based on the amount of residual sugar left in the wine after the fermenting process is complete. The residual sugar level can range from 0 to more than 100 grams per litre! The chart below is the standard to which sweetness codes are assigned in BC Liquor Stores.

Sweetness Code Description Grams of sugar per litre of wine
0 Very dry 0-5
1-2 Off-dry 5-25
3-4 Medium 25-45
5-6 Sweet 45-65
7-10 Very sweet 65-105+

The perceived sweetness of a wine can be different from the assigned code. Alcohol content, carbon-dioxide content, acidity, tannin levels and the serving temperature can all affect how sweet a wine tastes.

Winemakers strive to create balance in the wine by managing the alcohol, acidity and tannin, but ultimately, nature determines the resulting sweetness. For example, a wine with a sweetness code of zero would have a relatively low amount of residual sugar, but high alcohol content may make it taste sweeter. Alternatively, a wine with a high sweetness code (signalling high amounts of residual sugar) could taste dry when the acidity is high.

Here are some examples of what kinds of wines fall into the sweetness codes above.

Code Description and Types
0 The very dry wine category would include many Chardonnay, Cabernet varietals, Chianti, Shiraz and Zinfandel. Dry French wine or Champagne will be indicated with Brut.
1-2 Some of the wines in the off-dry category would include many Sauvignon Blanc, California Burgundies and many sparkling white and rosés. Look for the word sec in the French section, trocken in the German section and seco on the Italian wines.
3-4 The medium category will start to reveal summery whites such as German Riesling and Gewôrztraminer. German wines may be noted with halbtroken, Spanish wines dulce and French wines doux.
5-6 In the sweet category you'll find Hungarian Tokaji, some Late Harvest wines and other fortified wines. This level of sweetness is most closely associated with ports and aperitifs.
7-10 The very sweet wines include Late Harvest, Icewine, the noble rot and many Sauternes. Italian wines in this category of sweetness may be indentified as dolce, German wines as lieblich, and French as moelleux.