As Bruno Mars’s new album 24K Magic tells us, sweet wine is a thing right? How could “Strawberry Champagne on ice” not be sweet? (By the way, what the hell is strawberry Champagne? Is it Rosè? Or Champagne with a literal strawberry in it? And for god sakes, why are we watering it down with ice Bruno?)
Here’s the deal: by the thousands, people are mislabeling wine as sweet: asking for a sweeter Cabernet Sauvignon (which pretty much doesn’t exist), or asking which wine on a menu is “not too sweet” (99% of wine menus are ONLY not-sweet-wines). And while I would never judge you (because I love you, real talk) people in-the-know are definitely judging you when you say “this Zinfandel is too sweet”; because it’s not; because that’s not what you mean. But it’s ok. We’re going to fix that. Right here, right now baby.
SWEET = SUGAR
When you were 6 years old, going trick or treating, you knew: SWEET = SUGAR. No bones about it.When it comes to wine, it’s the same. Sweet wines have LITERAL sugar in them. How much sugar depends on the winemaker; not the grape or place. The winemaker decides if he is going to let the yeast eat all the sugar or only some of the sugar. And if the yeast doesn’t eat all the sugar, there’s some sugar leftover in the final wine: we call this residual sugar, or RS. And THIS is what makes wine off-dry (semi-sweet) or sweet.
Some typically off-dry/sweet wines = many Rieslings, Port, Moscato d’Asti, White Zinfandel, Lambrusco, Ice Wine, and Sauternes.
DRY = NO SUGAR
The opposite of sweet is dry. Dry is the lack of sugar. A wine cannot be sweet and dry at the same time. (Redundant much?)
90+% of all wines made are dry. Winemakers let the yeast eat most/all the sugar, turning it all in dry wine. Sauvignon Blanc; dry. Pinot Noir: dry. Chardonnay: dry. Zinfandel; dry. Pinot Grigio: dry. Dry, dry, dry DRY DAMNIT.
Now, there are levels of dryness. Winemakers may leave a little RS in some wines; some grapes are “aromatic” or have sweet smells; oak can add the perception of sweetness. i.e. Pinot Grigio (bone dry) tends to be drier than Chardonnay (dry). But they are both described as dry; not off-dry, not sweet.
Some typically dry wines: all of them! Nebbiolo, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, the swill your uncle makes in his garage, two buck chuck. Got it?
FRUITY ≠ SWEET
This is where people start to get confused, for good reason: fruits are sweet, and a lot of wine tastes like fruit. We even describe it that way: we say “this Pinot Noir tastes likes cherry jam and cranberry.” But a fruity wine has nothing to due with sugar and sweetness, those are just flavors. Fruit flavors in a wine actually has more to do with where a wine comes from: wines from the new world (USA, South America, Australia) tend to be fruit forward, while wines from the old world (France, Spain, Italy) tend to be mineral/earth forward.
Some typically fruity wines: American Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Australian Shiraz, Chilean Malbec
Some typically earthy/mineral driven wines: Pinot Grigio, Champagne, Chianti, Bordeaux, Burgundy
TANNIC ≠ DRY
This is where people continue to get confused: tannins dry your mouth out, so they think that means tannic wines are dry. But tannins are unrelated to dryness and sweetness: they are a bitter component found in wine from the skins, stems, and seeds of the grapes (only found in red wines).
Wines can be tannic and dry (Cabernet Sauvignon), but they can also be tannic and sweet (Port wine is tannic and sweet). Or put another way, Pinot Noir is not tannic, but is still dry.
Some typically tannic wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Barolo
Some typically not tannic wines: Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Grenache
TO SUM UP
sweet OR dry
tannic OR not tannic
fruity OR earthy
So now, when you go to the restaurant you can say smart things like “I’d like a mineral driven Chardonnay”, “Do you have anything a semi-sweet, maybe an off-dry Riesling?”, or “I’d like a red that’s not too tannic”. And you’ll get EXACTLY what you want.
-Vince, V is for Vino