There is an entire vocabulary that wine professionals use to talk about, rate, and sell wine. While it can be helpful to know some of those terms, they can also create an exclusionary feeling for the average consumer. Do you need to be able to identify the subtle notes of lead pencil shavings in your Cabernet? No, you do not. If learning how to talk about wine in such ways seems important to you or fun, by all means, carry on! If not, that's okay, too! If I had to choose one really useful lesson to know, though, it's how to differentiate between “sweet” and “fruit-forward” (or “fruity”).
When helping customers choose wine, we often land on the topic of sweetness, and inevitably the conversation evolves into a discussion of sugar content versus aroma and flavor profile. Since this comes up so frequently, I thought I'd jot down some helpful information in the blog.
Let's start by defining our terms so that we're all on the same page:
Residual sugar: the sugar that's left in the wine after fermentation ends. I like to think of it like Pac-Man. Imagine that Pac-Man is the yeast and the “dots” are the sugars in the grape juice. The yeast eats up the sugars, producing alcohol, and any “dots” that didn't get eaten are residual sugar. In general, then, wine with higher residual sugar tends to be lower in alcohol. Most Moscato, for instance, is about 5.5-9.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) while dry reds tend to be 12-15.5% ABV.
Sweet: Wines that contain a larger amount of residual sugar. The spectrum of sweetness goes from 9-120+ grams/liter (or .9%-12.0%+)
Dry: Wines that contain 9 g/l (.9%) residual sugar or less.
Off-dry, medium-dry/semi-sweet, and medium-sweet fall on the spectrum in between dry and sweet. See Wine Folly's helpful graphic here.
Now that we have some definitions, let's talk about how this plays into your wine-buying experience. When I ask customers what they are looking for in a wine, often the answer is “anything, but not sweet” or “nothing really dry, but not super sweet.” After many conversations, I realized that we weren't always talking about the same thing, and it took a while for me to figure out how to talk about residual sugar content versus aroma and flavor.
Aside from knowing what the numbers on a bottle of wine indicate (ABV and RS), what does it mean to be dry or sweet? I have found that people often use “sweet” to describe the aromas and flavors that they discern in a wine, independent of the residual sugar content. That is, a wine that comes across as fruit-forward or giving the initial impression of cherries, berries, plums, etc., may strike us as “sweet” because our brains associate that smell or taste with sweetness. When we taste a real strawberry, it is relatively sweet, so we think: strawberry=sweet. When we taste something like strawberry in a wine, our brain recognizes the flavor as a sweet one. If you've ever had savory strawberry soup, you will know that it takes a minute to get over the mental hurdle of taste association.
So fruitiness can often come across as seeming sweet, even if there is little residual sugar. When I know that a wine is fruit-forward, and a customer is asking for something very dry, we move along to another product. If someone wants a wine that is not sweet “like Moscato,” but not super dry, a fruit-forward wine can be just the thing.
In both red and white wines, acidity levels play into the perception of sweetness as well. If a fruit-forward wine also has a high acid content, it will come across as less sweet. Pinot Grigio is a great example of this, because while it is vinified as a dry wine, many customers say that they want to avoid a “sweet Pinot.” What they have discerned is that some styles of Pinot have lower acidity and strong, ripe fruit aromas/flavors, while others have higher acidity. If you are drinking a Pinot Grigio that is very tart and crisp, it is probably more acidic.
Red wines have varying levels of acidity, but they also have varying levels of tannins. An easy way to understand how tannins work on your palate is to over-steep black tea. When you drink it, you'll notice that it seems to dry out your mouth, usually in the middle of your tongue and in the front part of your cheeks. Red wines also have tannins (they occur naturally in the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes and can be conferred by the oak of wine barrels). A dry red wine that is very fruit-forward might come across as less sweet-tasting because of the drying mouthfeel of strong tannins. When a customer is looking for a red wine that isn't “very dry” but not sweet, we talk about avoiding one that is very tannic.
There are five main characteristics that define a wine, and I remember them with this mnemonic device:
As you try wines, attempt to discern in what proportion these work best for your palate. These characteristics are quantitative and qualitative: they have measurable values that produce both predictable and subjective results. For instance, high acidity will create a certain level of tartness in a white wine, but the way one person experiences that sensation might be different from the way another does.
This brings us back to sweetness. Residual sugar is measurable and directly informs a wine's sweetness, while fruit-forwardness is a subjective perception on the palate that can exist irrespective of RS. Figuring out how you feel about both and trying to articulate your preferences can be very useful when you shop so that you don't end up with a dessert wine when you really wanted a Napa Cab.
When tasting wine, look at the alcohol content and, if it's listed, the RS content. Think about, as you taste, what's happening in your mouth. Get to know how your own palate works, and how you perceive wines in relation to the measurable characteristics. The most important aspect of wine-buying is that you go home with a bottle that's right for you, and not one that someone else tells you is the best. Being able to tease out the aspects of wine that suit you and using some basic terminology should help you to that end.