Let's Keep Sweetness Simple

In the last article, I discussed how to detect mouthfeel (aka texture) in wine.  Now I wish to focus on sweetness.  Sweetness is an important part for us to understand in regard to beverages.  Think about it, everyone naturally likes sweet things since they are comforting.  Have you recently walked the cookie aisle in the supermarket?  They are filled with products and most of them contain some type of sweetener to please the palate.  It’s no different when we walk down the drink section.  There are a variety of soft drinks in all flavors that attempt to appeal to us.

We are all different in what we like.  That is very evident when we think about sweetness in our food and drinks.  Some love sweet and crave it.  Others can live without it.  Some like the natural sweetness in a piece of fruit like an apple or tangerine.  Some of us desire the sweetness found in candies or soft drinks.  Others prefer the sweetness in desserts like a good chocolate chip cookie.  This is reflected in our drink choices, especially wine.

When we all start drinking wine, we prefer sweeter selections.  I started with wine coolers which is truly dating myself but it’s what I liked.  If you had given me a Cabernet Sauvignon back then, I would have thought it was the worst thing in the world.  I wanted the sweet; I did not want the tannins.  However over time, I learned to like them and more.  I call it the evolution of our palate when it comes to wine:

  • Sweet whites,
  • Medium sweet whites,
  • Off dry and dry whites (and sparkling wines),
  • Off Dry Reds, and finally
  • Dry Reds.

Therefore, it’s important to see where we fall on the above evolution and understand what sweetness level works for us in a glass of wine.  Let me explain a few aspects regarding sweetness.

Where does Sweetness come from?

Picture yourself sampling a really ripe grape that’s super sweet.  This grape is filled with sugar dissolved in the juice of the grape.  In order to make a wine, the grape juice gets exposed to yeast.  During fermentation, the yeast eats the sugar and produces alcohol (ethanol), heat and carbon dioxide. 

I know that we all love the alcohol aspect.  The question is how much sugar is left in the finished wine?  This is called residual sugar: 

  • Residual sugar is the sugar remaining after fermentation.

The winemaker can stop the fermentation early to leave higher levels of residual sugar.  This is typically done for white wines.  However, this does not work for red wines.  Here’s a small fact; grape juice is clear in white and red grapes (smash any grape you have on hand to see).  In order to extract the color during fermentation, the alcohol helps to leech the color out of the skins.  The deeper the color, the more alcohol you need to produce.  The more alcohol (yeast consuming sugar) you produce, the less residual sugar you have.  Therefore, the majority of red wines are fermented until they are dry (aka very low residual sugar) in order to maximize the alcohol level and color extraction. 

Side note:  This is why I love recipes that say you need a dry red wine to cook with (SMH).  Most of them already are dry. 😊

Palate Detection for Sweetness

Sweetness is detected on the tip of our tongue.  Think about giving a piece of candy like a lollipop to a child.  They instantly are happy as they lick the lollipop over and over again.  If you look at where they focus on the lollipop, its mostly from constant licking (again the tip).

Sweetness Levels

I mentioned dry earlier.  What does this actually mean related to wine?  There is a scale below that I use that helps me determine what the sweetness level of a wine.

SweetnessDryOff DryMediumMedium +SweetLuscious
Sugar level (gram/l)Less than 6 gram/l6 – 10 gram/l10-15 gram/l16 – 29 gram/l30 – 59 gram/l+ 60 gram/l

What the heck is a gram and how do I know how many gram/l are in the wine?  We are not concerned about the numbers but detection of the level.  This looks daunting but with a bit of practice, it’s pretty easy to learn.  Plus, you get to drink wine. 😊 Here is what you need to remember to navigate the chart above:

  • If you can not detect any sweetness at all, then the wine is probably dry.
  • If you can detect a tiny amount of sweetness, then it’s probably off dry.
  • If the wine is super sweet (like an ice wine), it falls in the range of sweet to luscious.
  • Anything else in most cases falls under medium.

Please remember the following.  The winery makes wine to sell to a specific demographic.  They want their product to sell and most importantly, want repeat customers.  Therefore, when they make a wine, it needs to match the customer’s profile.  Included in that is sweetness.  These wines fall primarily in three levels (Dry, Off Dry, and Medium).

Sweet and above are considered dessert wines.  Over the years, I’ve learned that its hard to find a medium + wine because very few people want this level.  I’ve seen it but its not common.  An example of this is some wineries in Texas will add sugar to their red wines to make it approachable to more people.

Why do we care?

Everyone has their level of sweetness that they are comfortable with.  I prefer dry to off dry for most wines, but I will drink everything on the chart (except sweet Texas Reds – sorry).  And I have friends that prefer a medium white wine.  AWESOME!!!  The goal is to figure out what YOU like to drink so you know your flavor profile.  I want you to be able to go anywhere and describe what sweetness level you wish to consume.

The second reason is for wine and food pairing.  While future articles will really dive into this, here’s  what’s important.  You want to match the sweetness level in the wine to the food.  The sweetness level in wine matched with the same sweetness in food will cancel each other out.  In other words, you can’t tell which one is sweeter.

This is important as one should not overpower the other.  For example, scallops lightly sauteed in a hint of garlic and butter would be washed out with a medium sweetness wine.  The Sauvignon Blanc that I’ve referenced in the last few articles would work perfect since it’s off dry.  However, I can take the scallops and sprinkle a little sugar on top to caramelize with a blowtorch after cooking.  Now the sweetness levels match so you will be able to taste the scallop better.

Final Thoughts

I know that this is a lot of information, but I want YOU to be armed with knowledge.  Just remember to talk with your server or the sales rep where you purchase your wine and tell them what you want.  They should be able to recommend a wine with the sweetness level you desire.  Do not settle for less.  I want you to be happy.

Sweetness in a wine is easy to determine.  Once you know what level of residual sugar you desire, wine selection becomes easier.  Next time, we move to discuss acid levels. 😊

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