Is My Wine Sweet?

There are hundreds of varieties of wine in the world and it can be difficult to decide when looking at a wine list on what to choose. We all have our own personal favorites. Sometimes we enjoy stepping out of our comfort zones, get adventurous and try something new. Don’t let a bad wine experience discourage you from continuing to explore. Wine educators like us are here to assist and get you a glass you will enjoy. A typical comment we hear when providing tasting descriptors to a guest is, “but I don’t want it to be too sweet”. Surprisingly to many, about 90% of the wines you see on a wine list actually have less then 1% of sweetness. There is a technical definition to “sweet wine”; 35+ grams of Residual Sugar.  We are here to help clear up the confusion and explain to you where sweetness levels in wine comes from.

In last month’s blog post “And it’s Crush Time” we learned about the perfect time to pick the grapes and what the winemaker is looking for. There is a fine balance when to pick based on the Brix levels and ripeness of the grape itself. During the fermentation process, the yeast eats the sugars and converts to alcohol. After fermentation is completed there may still be some residual sugars left over. Before we dive further into this let’s discuss a wines sweetness chart.

You will hear the words Bone Dry, Dry, Off Dry, Medium Sweet and Sweet to describe the amount of Residual Sugar (RS) levels in wine. Let’s break down each category and wines that fall within that category.

  • Bone Dry: 0 – 1 G/L RS – Chianti, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Albarino, Chablis, Vino Verde
  • Dry: 0 – 17 G/L RS – Vermentino, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc Burgundy, Malbec, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Merlot
  • Off-Dry: 17 – 35 G/L RS – Kabinett Reisling, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer
  • Medium-Sweet: 35 – 120 G/L RS – Moscato, Sparkling Reisling, Lambrusco
  • Sweet: 120+ G/L RS – Port, Tawny Port, Sauternes, Tokaji, Sherry, Ice Wine

There are many more varietals of wines that we didn’t list above and some wines can move from category to another pending climate and when harvested. Acidity can also trick our perception of wine sweetness as well. A higher acidic wine will taste more “dry” than a wine with less acidity like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Some wine makers will leave a little more residual sugar in their wines because the wine is so high in acidity.

Our sense of smell can lead us to believe that the wine is “sweet”. A riper fruit driven wine out of a warmer climate like a Paso Robles Cabernet will tend to trick our brain into thinking it’s a sweeter wine. But it falls in the dry category of RS levels. An aromatic white like a Torrontes or a Reisling can have sweet floral aromas but actually fall into the Dry and Off- Dry category of RS levels as well.

The same grape varietal can be made in variations of sweetness levels as well. Reisling and Chenin Blanc can be made completely bone dry to lusciously sweet. The Reisling grape can be a high acidic and bright style or can go through noble rot (Botrytis) or late harvested to concentrate the sugars on the vine creating more Residual Sugars.

Sometimes you might taste sweet but technically they are dry. The wine’s ripeness in fruit flavors along with the tannins and acidity will influence how you perceive it. Our perception of the sugar is based on our own sensitivity and taste to sweetness. Two Cabernets may have the same RS levels but one tastes “sweeter” because of a ripe and jammy fruit component making it seem “sweeter”.

Now there is NOTHING wrong with a sweet style wine, especially if it’s balanced with acidity. There are many incredible wines that we love to enjoy, at the right moment. Lately, we have been looking to add some incredible Ports, Sauternes and Dessert wines. We are working on some new pairings with local artisanal Chocolatier Linda Fink, from Moondance Chocolates. We can’t wait to share them with you!

Be not ashamed of your love of sweeter wines, no matter what the grape variety. And if you have not yet opened your heart to these luscious beauties, be not afraid to explore. Laugh at those who would pooh-pooh your choices, knowing that they too often suffer for what they perceive as art, while you enjoy a good quaff.