The Sweet vs. Dry Discussion
By: George Balling
There is no discussion when it comes to wine that has more varied opinions and elicits more misunderstanding than that about the sweetness or dryness of wine. Not only do personal preferences come into play when the subject comes up so do understanding of winemaking styles, and techniques all of which can influence the product that hits our wine glass.
All wine grape varietals contain sugar, no surprise there. Fermentation occurs when yeast is introduced to those sugars, consuming them and turning the grape juice into alcohol and CO2 a by product of the fermentation. The technical level of sweetness, or dryness in any wine is determined by how long the fermentation is allowed to go on, and the amount of sugar that is left when that fermentation stops.
Here is part of the rub in this discussion though. When the palate tastes fruit and communicates that taste to the brain, the brain will go to sweet, even though there is technically no unfermented sugar left in the wine that simple fruity taste causes some of us to think the wine is sweet. Similarly, on the flip side of the discussion if a wine spends much time in contact with the grape skins during fermentation allowing a lot of tannin extraction from the skins, a wine can finish dry from that dry grippy astringent feeling in our mouth, yet there still may be some amount of sugar left in the wine.
These perceptions of sweet versus dry are the root of the problem many times in describing any wine. Add in the fact that all of our palates are so different in what we taste, smell and detect in a wine, and well….you get the idea. For consumers though how do we know whether a wine is technically sweet or dry, and how can we tell if we are picking up actual sugar in wine versus fruit.
Starting with grape varietals it is important to note that any grape can be fermented dry or sweet. Rieslings are not sweet because the grape is sweet it is due to winemaking when fermentation is stopped prior to all the sugar being consumed. There are many bone-dry Rieslings that are delicious without a hint of sugar. Although I don’t know why you would, it is possible to make a Cabernet sweet, just stop the fermentation by killing off the yeast before all the sugar is consumed and you will have sweet Cabernet, as unappealing as that sounds. The first rule then is to never assume a wine is sweet or dry based on the grape varietal that is in the bottle.
When a wine is sweet the sugar remaining in the wine is referred to as residual sugar. The challenge is that residual sugar, or rs is not listed on the label, however there are a few ways to know the sweetness of the wine. If a wine is designated as demi-sec used in the labeling of sparkling wine and Champagne it is off dry indicating that the wine contains some rs. Regions in Europe will also help you identify a wine that has sugar in it. For instance, the Vouvray region of the Loire Valley in France is known for producing wonderful world class Chenin Blanc, in Vouvray though a bit of sugar is always left in the wine.
The guidance of your favorite wine professional is also important as we taste most everything in our collection so if wines have residual sugar, we can tell you which ones. We are also able to steer you in the right direction when a wine is very fruit driven causing it to present as sweet even if it is dry. The human palate is able to detect true sugar at around 1.5% to 2%, but varies for each of us. I am very sensitive to sugar so most times I can begin to detect it at 1% depending on the wine. Most every wine professional will know enough about the wine they are presenting to you to say whether it is just fruity or truly sweet.
Let your own palate be the guide. We all have different tastes in wine, that is the beauty and passion of it. While some of us like a lovely juicy fruit driven, unoaked, light bodied Beaujolais, others love the sensation of mouth searing tannins that completely dry out the palate on the finish so no fruit is detected. Wine drinking and appreciation is a continuum and many of us will lie somewhere in between these two extremes. Detecting the technical sweetness of wine will then fade in importance to just knowing what we like, sweet or dry, fruity or not, becomes the most important criteria.