Not Too Sweet, Not Too Dry …
Wednesday - July 25, 2007
One of the basics in wine is to know if the wine is sweet or dry. It sounds very simple to the naked palate, but there is still plenty of confusion between the two. I can’t tell you how many times as a sommelier someone asks me to recommend a sweet wine when they are actually looking for a dry wine.
So let’s try to elucidate the difference.
Sweet and dry are exact opposites of each other on a linear plain. Sweet is defined as something having sugar in it. There are plenty of things that we eat that have sugar. Fruits all taste best when they have the highest amount of sugar in them. Desserts, cakes, jams, candy and chocolates all have sugar in them. We can taste that they are sweet. Things that we drink that have sugar in them include sodas, juices, syrups, energy drinks and cordials. Wines can certainly have sugar in them as well. This sugar is usually sugar left over from the fermentation process, also known as residual sugar, resulting in a wine that is sweet.
Things that are dry either do not contain any sugar or have such a tiny amount of it that it is virtually imperceptible to our palates. Things that we eat that are dry in their natural state include plain bread, eggs, rice and pasta. Examples of beverages that are naturally dry are water, black coffee and tea. We don’t get any sweetness out of these things because there is no sugar.
There certainly are wines that you can expect to be sweet, such as Sauternes, Ports, Bonnezeaux, Muscats from the South of France, etc. But the large majority of wines in the world are actually produced dry. This means that all or virtually all the sugar in the juice from the grapes is fermented into alcohol and carbon dioxide. There is no residual sugar left in the wine, so it’s not sweet.
But here is where it gets, well, sticky. There are also wines that fall somewhere in between. From sweetest to driest it goes something like, dessert, sweet, offdry, dry and bone dry. Places such as Alsace and Germany make every style of wine from bone dry to dessert sweet. In Germany at least, there are indications on the label, suggesting the sweetness of the wine, but in Alsace there is really no indication of how sweet or dry the wine will be except when it gets to be really sweet (noted by Selections de Grains Nobles). Champagne also makes a full range of sweet-ness/dryness levels.
On top of this there are many wine drinkers who think that certain wines that are actually dry are sweet because the wine is so fruity. When we smell and taste the fruitiness, especially exotic tropical flavors, we associate them with sweet things. The fruits themselves that we smell and taste in certain wines are certainly sweet like apples, pears, melons, figs, mangoes, papayas, guava, etc. Tasters can also be fooled into thinking that a wine is sweet because the amount of oak influence in the wine. The aromas infused into the wine by oak read like a list of desserts - vanilla, butterscotch, caramel, buttered toast. Higher alcohol wines can also fool the palate into thinking it is sweet because certain types of alcohol like glycerol are also perceived as sweetness in our palates.
No wonder wine drinkers have a hard time telling the difference between sweet and dry! But once you can figure it out, you will have a much easier time finding something that you will really enjoy. And that is always sweet!
Sweet: 2004 Chateau de Cosse, Sauternes $19 (375ml). This is Chateau Rieussec’s second wine and is a delectable dessert or perfect pair for cheese and crème brulee.
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