Bruno Mars in black and white

Wine You Drink Is Never Sweet. Well, Almost Never.

Bruno Mars likes sweet wine

I do have a man crush. Photo by Brothers Le

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?)


rose Champagne wine

I’m guessing he’s referring to Rosè. Lucky for you that’s what I like. Photo by_FXR via Flickr

Before we get started know this: there is no snobbery here. I’m a sommelier. I’ve also drank wine from a solo cup. And one time, I drank a whole bottle of Carlo Rossi and puked it up on a monopoly board. But this blog is for you: so you can better communicate your preferences and drink more wine you like, and with that comes a little bit of wine nerd semantic stuff.

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 wine and candy sugar

“First 10 years of my life, I think the only clear thought I had was GET. CANDY.” Photo by Luke Jone via Flickr

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.


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?)

big old wall of wine

dryness. dryness everywhere… photo by Geoffrey Fairchild via Flickr

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?


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.

fruity wine is not sweet

can i knock it over? photo by en:User Daderot

Some typically fruity wines: American Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Australian Shiraz, Chilean Malbec

Some typically earthy/mineral driven wines: Pinot Grigio, Champagne, Chianti, Bordeaux, Burgundy


tannic wine is not dry

black tea is also tannic. so are walnuts. photo by maxpixel

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


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