I hear many people say they like sweet wine. Instead of assuming what they are drinking, it prompts me to ask more questions to figure out what they like about the so-called “sweet wine” they are drinking – fruitiness or sweetness.
What is sweetness?
Sweetness refers to the amount of sugar left in wine after fermentation. During fermentation, yeast feed on sugar to create alcohol. The yeast die (and fermentation ends) when there is no sugar left or it reaches 15% alcohol. The remaining sugar is referred to as “residual sugar”, or “r/s”, and it is measured in grams per liter. You may see this reference on wine labels or wine spec sheets.
Grapes are naturally sweet when ripened fully and some grape varietals are naturally fruity. However, winemakers can use techniques to make a wine sweet by halting fermentation when a desired amount of sweetness is achieved (or by adding sugar/grape juice after fermentation). Example: Gewürztraminer, a very aromatic and fruity wine, can be made in in a variety of styles from dry to sweet. The vintage or region can also have an impact on sweetness or fruitiness of the wine.
Sweetness in general is identified as sugar on the tip of your tongue, not an aroma or flavor. Refer to the Wine Folly Wine Sweetness Chart for a range of sweetness in white and red wines.
What is fruitiness?
Fruitiness refers to the aromas and flavors in the wine, not the level of sugar. A fruity wine will have strong aromas jump out of the glass and could also have an intense flavor on the palate. Characteristics of lychee, pineapple or stewed/jammy fruit in the aroma or palate are often mistaken for a sweet wine, when in fact it’s a fruity dry wine.
Example: A jammy zinfandel from California can be bursting with fruit aromas and flavors but it is a fruity dry wine.
Other things to consider:
Tannins can confuse us. Tannins create the drying/astringent flavor in red wine which is why we often associate dry wine with red wine. In fact, red wine can be sweet.
Alcohol content can give us a hint. The higher the alcohol content the less likely the wine will be sweet. Most wine over 13%, although it might be fruity, is going to be dry. One exception to this rule is some fortified wines which have a high alcohol content and can be sweet. The lower the content, the higher the probability for a sweet wine.
So what is it that you prefer, sweet or fruity wine?
Stephanie Roberts, WSET® Certified, is passionate about educating people about wine and all its complexities. She believes that through education comes enlightenment and approachability—elevating the wine and food experience. Stephanie is the founder of Corks & Boards, offering unique and tailored wine experiences, and topic driven tastings/education. Furthermore, she has developed a wine education series that she will launch February 2020. She currently offers wine experiences and education to the Lake Norman community at Brick Row and the Charlotte community at Camp North End.
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