Why the 'Sweetness' in Wine is Misunderstood

March 8, 2017

Just like your mother always told you, “There are some words that are simply inappropriate to use.”

In the wine world, ‘sweetness’ is one of them. Not because it is a dirty word. It has its appropriate time and place. Yet for many consumers (particularly those new to wine) it is a description that is often misunderstood, and as a result, misused. The confusion is leading many down the wrong path when trying to find wines they truly enjoy. That ‘sweet’ taste sensation you may or may not love isn’t due to sugar content: it’s more often than not the result of the wine’s fruitiness.

So here is where the confusion begins: wine professionals use the term ‘sweetness’ to indicate the amount of residual sugar in a wine. Yet, what our senses perceive as a “sweet” flavour is not dependent on residual sugar. It is instead due to the intensity of the wine’s fruitiness.

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“It’s about getting new wine lovers and wine store staff speaking the same language,” suggests Co-op Sommelier Manager, Mike Roberts.

“When a customer says they like a sweet wine, our first instinct is to point them to a wine high in residual sugar. Yet what the customer really wants is a very fruit-forward wine. A wine can have a fruity sensation, yet technically be dry... that is, very low in residual sugars.”

Roberts says that the sweetness is perceived and felt on the tongue as a texture. This sensation appears at the tip and the top of the tongue – and has the feel of a heavy, almost coating, sensation. “We each have our own individual abilities to perceive sweetness on the palate. This is where the water is muddied. Tannin (mouth drying) and acidity (mouth watering) both will influence our ability to perceive a wine’s sweetness and make it seem more or less sweet.”

While We’re at it, Let’s Not Forget the “D” Word

Dryness is another word that is widely used, but may not accurately reflect the type of wine you are seeking. A ‘dry red’ describes nearly every red wine on the shelf – as most reds have very low ratio of residual sugar. Those who like ‘dry wines’ are likely looking for a wine that is not as fruit driven, has more savoury notes, textured tannins, vivacious acidity and a dry feel.

The Final Word on Getting a Wine You Will Enjoy

A simple tip: a cool climate tends to produce wines that are less viscous, have higher acidity and can seem drier. A hot climate will fully ripen grapes and tannins – helping to create a plush and fruit filled wine that is often full-bodied and more tropical in style.

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Perhaps the best way to help us help you find a wine you’ll love is by keeping a list of those you’ve tried and have enjoyed. There are actually a number of cool apps that let you take photos of the label, make notes and rate the wine.

And next time you come into Co-op Wine Spirits Beer, don’t be embarrassed to use the “F” word (‘Fruitiness’). We promise not to tell your mom! 

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