Wine, Carbohydrates

and the Atkins Diet

Wine, Carbohydrates and the Atkins DietI have run a low carb website for over 15 years now. When I started the Atkins / low carb diet, and one of the biggest hurdles I had to face is the initial 2-week induction period which says NO ALCOHOL and only 20g of carbohydrates a day. I could deal with the low carbs ... but no wine? This was a pretty large sacrifice for me, but I figured I could get through it for the sake of a healthier body shape.

Note that the initial two-week ban on wine really has nothing to do with the carbs in wine. Wine is actually very low-carb. The ban is because drinking alcohol tends to make your blood-sugar levels jump around, which can make you feel hungry and crave sweets. Since a lot of the initial two-week struggle is to stay on the diet and get yourself motivated, the last thing you need is additional things causing you to want to eat and crave sugar. Be sure to read more about Wine, Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar.

Once you are past induction, the Atkins system has you move up to higher carbohydrate levels - between 25g and 50g per day based on your own individual body type and needs. During this period (and indeed for the rest of your life, if you want to maintain a healthy weight by following their lifestyle plan), you need to count wine carbohydrates in with all other carbohydrates you ingest in a given day. So what are the carbohydrates in wine?

In my page on Calories in Wine, I explain how the average glass of wine has 80 calories and 3 grams of carbohydrates. The USDA lists values of 0.8g to 1.8g. Less than 2g per serving is not very much!! Just where are these calories and carbs coming from?

Well, in general the calories are not from sugar. The whole idea behind wine is that you start with a grape, which has sugar in it. You then put yeasts on the grapes, and the yeasts convert that sugar to alcohol. That's what the process of fermentation is all about. So the calories primarily come from the alcohol. If you remember your basic chemistry, you use this simple formula of 1.6 x % alcohol x oz of liquid to determine the calories. So a 5% alcohol wine, in a 5 oz serving, means 1.6 x 5 x 5 = 40 calories. I have more about this formula on my Determining Calories in Wine page.

There are very few carbohydrates in wine - it is primarily water and alcohol. To see why diet companies give you a "carb count" for wine, read about Wine and Calories - How Wine is Metabolized.

Some people say erroneously that red wines are better for dieters because they are "less sweet". This flavor difference usually has nothing to do with sugar content! It usually has to do with the fact that red wines are red because they are made with contact of the skin during the winemaking process - which gives them their rich, red color and their thicker, more tannic flavor. It's the grape skin that does most of these things. The "sweetness" in white wines is primarily a result of the lack of those tannins and the fruity flavors.

For example, take Red Zinfandel and White Zinfandel. They are made from the EXACT same grape - the red zinfandel grape. In one case (the white), they don't let the wine sit on the skins while it is made, so it turns out pink and light in flavor. In the other case (the red), they DO let the wine sit on the skins while it is made, turning it dark red and giving it a rich, tannic flavor. Pretty amazing difference!

Yes, it's true that wines are fermented to different levels of alcohol, which would leave behind varying amounts of those natural sugars. So let's say that a red wine grape has X amount of sugar. A winemaker creating a red zinfandel might use powerful yeasts to turn every last drop of sugar to create a high-alcohol monster wine. The resulting wine would have lots of alcohol and little residual sugar. Another winemaker using those same grapes might want to make a gentle white zinfandel with it. They would use a gentle yeast which only turns some of the sugars into alcohol. The resulting wine would have a low level of alcohol and also have some of that sugar still left in the wine. So their wine would be less tannic, less alcoholey, and sweeter in flavor.

Pretty much no reliable winemaker around the world adds sugar to their winemaking process. So it's not that anyone is dumping sugar into your wine. It's that the grape itself starts with sugars and it's a question of how many of them are converted by the yeast into alcohol. Winemaking is about taking a grape, adding yeast, and converting the sugars in the grape into alcohol. That's how it's done everywhere.

Occasionally my readers will write me trying to figure out what wines have less sugars in them. This can be like asking which apples have more or less fructose in them. Every wine is different and every apple is different. It can depend on the year - how much sun the fruit got, how much rain it got, when exactly it was picked. There might be a slight difference, but it's not going to be worth nit-picking over. Let's say one glass of wine has 3.1g of carbs and the other one next to it has 3.3g of carbs. Are you going to really drink wine you hate the taste of to save .2g of carbs in a glass? I would hope not! The stress you add into your life will more than destroy any health benefits you gain.

Now, that being said, there are some wines which are notorious for being VERY sweet. Those would include white zinfandel, late harvest riesling, port, and ice wine. You can be pretty sure that any ice wine you buy will be syrupy sweet. But other than those? You can't even just say that all pink wines are sweet. There are some delightful roses which are bone dry (which, in wine lingo, is not-sweet). So there are few global statements one can make about sugar and wine.

I highly suggest that you drink what you love. Wine provides relaxation, serenity, and antioxidants, and all of these things help your body as a whole metabolize much better. Even if you DID get an extra two-tenths-of-a-gram in a given glass of wine, the fact that you drink it with pleasure and enjoyment would quite easily make your body more healthy overall.

To summarize: if you are having a glass or two of wine with dinner, as long as it's not a rich dessert wine like port or ice wine, the many health benefits you get from the wine far outweigh the few "carb equivalents" that they add to your count. And since you often are having to be picky about the menu you create, the added pleasure from a good wine can make all the difference in the world! Drink what you LOVE. Don't worry at all about the tiny fractional differences of carbs or calories in a given glass.

Dieting and Wine
Digestion and Wine
The Calories in Wine
Wine Calorie Calculator
Atkins, Low Carb and Wine
Atkins and Wine Changes Over Years
Diabetes and Wine


A great deal of research and work went into my wine / health pages. If you use this information, please credit me properly. Thanks!

Wine and Health

All content on the WineIntro website is personally written by author and wine enthusiast Lisa Shea. WineIntro explores the delicious variety and beautiful history which makes up our world of wine! Lisa loves supporting local wineries and encouraging people to drink whatever they like. We all have different taste buds, and that makes our world wonderful. Always drink responsibly.