I’ve seen it happen a thousand times and been apart of it a thousand and one: someone takes a sip, makes a sour face– head kicked back, jaws clenched, one eye open, the other cocked to the heavens while shaking their hand at the pourer as if saying “no, no, no!” before proclaiming that the wine is much too sweet for their liking. After this comes the part where the pourer states that the wine is actually dry, and then the drinker argues his or her point as to how it’s not humanly possible that the wine is anything but sweet.. [cue mellow dramatic base line which leads up to heated argument and then someone getting offended and or possibly a glass thrown at their feet]. Why does this happen time and time again? Because after divulging that the wine is dry the professional doesn’t make an appropriate or meaningful attempt to explain the difference between dry and fruity. Thus being left with a not-so-happy patron who’s under the assumption that they just got called ‘wrong’ and or accused of having a faulted pallet for thinking that a wine is -off dry or sweet when, technically, it’s considered dry.
I’d say that at least eighty percent of the time these arguments are those consisting of nothing more than the professional trying to argue the absolute definition of, in wine speak, what dry, -off dry and sweet actually entails [which in most cases is a discussion on semantics] unless of course someone’s looking to learn the difference between fruity and dry. Which is why we’re here today. But if that’s not the case then the wine professional should take [that] persons assumption of what sweet entails and apply it to a theoretical situation where sweet is no longer sweet but fruity and hold nothing above the preferred end result of you selecting a bottle/style of wine which you enjoy is met; no matter the technical definition of what the style and or chemical composition that specific wine held.
So, considering it’s touchy nature along with the fact that I saw this same dance end horribly wrong last night in the middle of a well-known Lincoln Park restaurant is why right here, right now, while sitting far away so that if you get the urge to ball up a fist and take a swing I won’t be anywhere near the receiving end,.. I have decided to clear the air on one of wines most touchy subjects.
When you say ‘sweet’ to me I automatically start thinking about wines which are -off dry in style. In wine speak the terms ‘-off dry’ and ‘sweet’ [or anywhere in between] are directly related and given moniker to wines that contain a certain level of residual sugar, or simply ‘RS’.
Wine itself can be produced from anything that contains sugar or even simply a moisture content alone [to which sugar can be added].
It’s been said that the first person to consume alcohol wasn’t even a person, it was more than likely some sort of bird. Think about it: grape clusters sitting on a vine, part of the set falls to the ground- splitting open a berry or two-, wild [ambient] yeast present within the air now finds itself inside of the grape and starts consuming the sugar, thus creating the by-product of.. heat, co2, and… alcohol.
Depending on the sugar ripeness of the fruit being used, or if chaptalization will occur [the practice of adding sugar to unfermented grape must] the wine maker has the choice of fermenting a wine ‘bone’ dry where he or she will allow the yeasts to consume all the sugars present within the juice that have the ability to be converted into alcohol. An ‘off’ dry wine, where the yeasts consume the majority of the sugars but not all of them. Or a ‘sweet’ wine, where the yeasts consume a small to medium portion, leaving the rest perceptively present -usually to an obvious extent- within the juice, i.e: dessert wines.
The European Union designation for a ‘dry’ wine means that the wine holds less than four grams per liter of RS. Though, there may be up to nine g/l if the wines acidity level trails the sugar by less than two grams [there’s several other stipulations in relation to these types of ‘stabilized’ designations but we won’t go into them now]. ‘Medium Dry’ covers wines which old up to twelve grams per liter. ‘Medium’ or sometimes seen as ‘Medium-Sweet’ are those which sit over twelve and under forty five. ‘Sweet’ are those which carry over forty five grams per liter.
What about for sparkling and Champagne? Without completely changing the subject, those labeled Brut Natural contains a dosage [addition of sugar and base wine] containing three g/l; Extra Brut is everything less than six; Brut = no more than fifteen; Extra Sec or Extra Dry.. twelve to twenty; Sec —> seventeen to thirty five grams per liter; Demi-Sec equals a dosage containing thirty three to fifty grams; and Doux is -every and -anything over fifty grams per liter.. and if you think that’s sweet, keep in mind the next time you have a cola that there’s a good chance it contains upwards of twelve percent RS, or over one hundred and fifty g/l.
Another thing to keep in mind here is that it would be safe to assume, as a general rule of thumb, lower alcohol wines will contain a higher amount of RS. Where as higher alcohol wines [check out the 2006 R ‘Amazed’ Carignan, Mourvedre blend which sits at a massive 16.5%] are going to have lower amounts of sugar left within them. Technically, or Chemically, speaking this is less than 2.5%, which is the maximum amount of RS within a wine for that wine to be considered ‘dry’.
Arguing about whether a wine is in fact -off dry, or dry is usually a waste of time because as stated earlier you’d basically be arguing about semantics if the drinkers not interested in learning the difference. If – within your mindset- you associate a specific wine, or it’s flavor profile to be that of an -off dry or sweet style, and you have no interest in differentiating between fruity and sweet profiles of wines then run with it. Enjoy the wine. Just know that the next time you come in and I taste you on a wonderfully round and robust white blend which contains a small amount of residual sugar [like the 2010 Chemistry White Blend], and you try and tell me that there’s .57% RS and that means it’s sweet. I’m going to be smiling, nodding my head politely while thinking that’s just crazy because the NOTES DISTINCTLY SAY THAT IT HAS EXACTLY .55% RS, AND THAT’S 1.85% BELOW PERCEPTIBILITY, AND THERE’S NO WAY THAT YOU CAN TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN .55% AND 2.4%, LET ALONE .55% AND .57!..
I’m joking. That would be ridiculous.
Training yourself and your pallet to differentiate a wine which exudes an overbearingly fruity profile from one which actually holds a perceptible amount of residual sugar, and thus considered to be -off dry in style, is a task not to be taken lightly. That is, if you’re interested in being able to do so. Remember, like many other things within this craft the only way you’re going to get better at it is to keep on drinking and assessing. Man does it feel good to be able to say that and not sound like a complete lush. What an industry..