Wine 101: Terms: Brix

This episode of “Wine 101” is brought to you by Estancia Vineyards. Even though Pinot Noir is made throughout the U.S., the Estancia Vineyards’ version, which sources its grapes from all across California, manages to set itself apart. It bursts with bright fruit flavors, is tinged with cinnamon and brown sugar, and perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Pinot Noir.

Much like residual sugar content, Brix levels are starting to appear on more and more wine info sheets. But other than being a cool word, what does it indicate?

Grape must, or juice, contains tannins, acids, and minerals, but about 90 percent of its content is sugar. In layman’s terms, a wine’s “Brix level” is a measurement of the sugar content of the grape must prior to fermentation. From a consumer point of view, Brix levels aren’t telling of a wine’s quality, but they do offer another level of transparency regarding the wine and the winemaker. Moreover, Brix levels help winemakers predict the alcohol content of the finished product, gauge how quickly the juice will ferment, and determine which yeast strain to use.

The term itself was coined in the 1880s by Karl Balling and Adolf Brix when the duo found a way to scale the gravity of liquids based on their weight and solute content. They would make solutions of pure sucrose and water at specific gravities, and then make a table with the measurements in what is known as Brix or Balling degrees. One degree Brix corresponds to about 10 grams of sugar per liter of wine. Roughly 23 degrees Brix equates to roughly 13 percent ABV, so anything over 24 degrees Brix is going to be a bigger wine.

Winemakers don’t actually have to wait until harvest to check Brix levels. With a device called a refractometer, one can measure Brix degrees on a grape-by-grape basis. Once a liquid has been placed on the refractometer, winemakers can measure Brix by how light passes through it. How the light bends will determine the amount of solutes — like sugar — in the liquid. Thankfully, there are a number of digital refractometers on the market to make checking Brix a breeze. Winemakers can also use hydrometers — which use buoyancy to gauge a liquid’s density — to check up on a wine’s alcohol content during fermentation.

The technology and terminology around Brix can admittedly get a bit confusing, but in this episode, we get geeky with some science and a dose of history to understand what it’s all about. Tune in for more.

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“Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

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