If you are a staunch “dry wine drinker”, I’ll bet you don’t even drink white wine. You think white wines are all sweet. That’s likely because the last time you sipped a white wine was back in the 1970’s and it was from Germany. I’m thinking Blue Nun, or Hochtahler? I know, you hate Rieslings.
I’ll also bet that lately you’ve tried some popular red wines and grimaced when expecting to taste “dry” and experienced a totally unexpected sweetness.
People often incorrectly equate dryness in wines as a sign of quality or sophistication. It’s happening more often as many mass-produced wines contain some sugar. But, not all great wines are fully sweet or fully dry. Sugar is a tool some winemakers use to add complexity to their wines. Afterall, wine is both a science and an art.
All fruits contain natural sugar, therefore, grapes contain sugar. But grapes also contain acidity, tannins and depending on ripeness at time of harvest, balancing all these elements to produce a good wine is where the winemaker performs his art using science.
Except for some regional curiosities, sweet and semi-sweet wines are usually produced in cool climate regions or in areas of the world where “traditional cool climate grapes” are grown. But back to Riesling in a minute.
Impressions of sweetness in wines doesn’t just come down to residual sugar and acidity, other factors can also play a role in the ultimate taste of your wine.
For example –
Oak aging – when wine is aged in barrel, contact with oak releases flavours that are associated with sweetness. These might be vanillin, caramel or coffee flavour compounds that are produced when the oak in the barrel has been toasted over a flame.
Ripeness of Fruit - this makes sense. Think of an under ripe peach versus one that is overripe. The taste is quite different, same fruit. Grapes can become jammy or raisin-like making us think that the more intense flavours are sweeter because the sugars are more concentrated. Even when these ripe fruits are fermented to dryness (think Ripasso or Amarone) the flavours are still there.
Alcohol – can taste sweet, like glycerol for example. Wines with a high alcohol content can often taste sweet even though residual sugar is low or none.
Serving temperatures - when served very chilled, a sweet wine is less sensitive to the palette. Think Ice wine, served chilled – delicious, but at room temperature, cloyingly sweet.
Now back to Riesling……
This traditional German grape is now grown worldwide. It’s a truly fascinating grape and can quite literally be bone dry to very sweet. Steffen Schindler of the German Wine Institute states “German wine is drier than ever. Today almost 70% of all wine produced is dry to semi-dry. Back in the 1970’s more than 2/3 of wine produced was sweet”. Learning all the terminology regarding sweetness levels, amounts of residual sugar, and harvest practices surrounding Germany’s Rieslings, is a whole other article.
So, how can you tell from the bottle if your wine will be sweeter or dryer? Likely if you are a wine novice, you won’t be able to. It's not always clarified on the label. Shop at a smaller, boutique store where educated staff can hand sell products and discuss your preferences with you. Avoid “mass produced popular wines” if you don’t like them sweet, both red or white. Many large producers are adding sugar to wine to suit a broad spectrum palette which gets people into drinking wine, thereby increasing their bottom line. Nothing wrong with this, and for some people starting into the world of wines, it’s a good place to start, but as you develop a more sophisticated palette, you will try other wines of greater complexity and styles from smaller producers to expand your pallette range.
Bottom line? Sweeter style wines definitely have a place at the table and can pair marvellously well with different foods. Dry wines can do the same. The good thing is, there’s plenty of choice out there and it’s fun to experiment and try something different. Even Blue Nun. She’s not the same girl these days!
For more on Blue Nun, read this interesting article http://winesisrael.com/en/4373/the-blue-nun-phenomenan/