How Sweet Wine Is

The sweetness of a wine is determined by how our taste buds interpret the interaction of a wine’s sugar content, the relative level of alcohol, acid and tannins. Sugars and alcohol enhance a wine’s sweetness; acids (sourness) and bitter tannins counteract it.

Among the components influencing how sweet a wine will taste is residual sugar. It is usually measured in grams of sugar per litre of wine (g/l). Residual sugar typically refers to the sugar remaining after fermentation stops, but it can also result from the addition of unfermented must (a German practice known as Süssreserve) or ordinary table sugar.

Even among the driest wines, it is rare to find wines with a level of less than 1 g/l. By contrast, any wine with over 45 g/l would be considered sweet, though many of the great sweet wines have levels much higher than this. The sweetest form of the Tokaji or Eszencia, contains over 450 g/l, with some vintages reaching 900 g/l. Such wines are balanced by the use of acidity. This means that the finest sweet wines are made with grape varieties that keep their acidity even at very high ripeness levels, such as Riesling and Chenin Blanc.

The sweetness of a wine is also controlled by factors such as the acidity and alcohol levels, the amount of tannin present, and whether the wine is sparkling or not. A sweet wine such as a Vouvray can actually taste dry due to the high level of acidity.  A dry wine can taste sweet if the alcohol level is increased.  

Medium and sweet wines are perceived by many consumers as being of lower quality than dry wines. However, many of the world’s great wines, such as those from Sauternes  or Tokaji, have a high level of residual sugar, which is carefully balanced with additional acidity.

People with more proteins in their saliva do not feel the drying effect of tannin as much as people with less. Another interesting fact is that the taste of tannin is reduced when paired with salty and fatty foods.

Our sense of smell also greatly affects our perception of sweetness. A wine that smells sweeter will also taste sweeter. Wine varieties are often referred to as ‘Aromatic’ because of their sweet floral aromas.  A few examples of this are Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Torrontés, and Moscato.

The sweetness scale for wine ranges from bone dry to dry, off-dry, semi-sweet, sweet and very sweet.

THE WHITE WINE SCALE

Bone Dry with flavours of lemons and minerals

  • Pinot Grigio (Italy)
  • Pinot Gris (France)
  • Albariño (Spain)
  • Garganega (Italy)
  • Dry Furmint (Hungary)
  • Gavi (Italy)
  • Muscadet (France)
  • Chablis (France)
  • Grenache Blanc (Spain, France)
  • Macabeo (Spain, France)
  • Vinho Verde (Portugal)
  • Grillo (Italy)
  • Arinto (Portugal)

Dry with Savory and herb flavours

  • Sauvignon Blanc (France)
  • Verdejo (Spain)
  • Grüner Veltliner (Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic)
  • Veroiccho (Italy)
  • Colombard (France, California)

Dry with flavours of grapefruit and green apple

  • Vermentino (Italy)
  • Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand)
  • Dry Chenin Blanc (France)
  • Dry Torrontés (Argentina)

Dry with flavours of yellow apple and pineapple

  • Chardonnay (France, Australia, North America)
  • Marsanne (Switzerland, France)
  • Roussanne (France)
  • Sémellon (France, Australia)
  • Trebbiano (Italy, France)

Dry with flavours of peach and lemon

  • Pinot Gris (United States, Canada)
  • Viogner (France, Australia, North America, South America, New Zealand, South Africa)
  • Dry Riesling (Germany, Australia, Hungary, Washington State, Canada)

Off-Dry with flavours of honeycomb and lemon

  • Kabinett Riesling (Germany)
  • Spätlese Riesling (Austria)
  • Chenin Blanc (France)
  • Torrontés (Argentina)
  • Müller Thurgau

Semi-Sweet with flavours of tropical fruit

  • Moscato (Italy)
  • Gewürztraminer (Germany)

Sweet with flavours of sweet lemon and honey

  • Late Harvest white wine (Everywhere)
  • Sauternes (France)
  • Ice Wine (Canada)
  • Auslese Riesling (Germany)
  • Tokaji (Hungary)

Very Sweet with flavours of golden raisin, fig and apricot

  • White Port (Portugal)
  • Moscatel Dessert Wine (United States)
  • Passito (Italy)
  • Vin Santo (Italy)

THE RED WINE SCALE

Bone Dry with a bold, bitter finish

  • Tannat (France, Uruguay, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, South Africa, Italy
  • Nebbiolo (Italy)
  • Sagrantino (Italy, Australia)
  • Malbec (France)

Bone Dry with savory flavours

  • Chianti (Italy)
  • Bordeaux (France)
  • Tempranillo (Spain)
  • Mourvèdre (France)
  • Anglianico (Italy)
  • Barbera (Italy)
  • Montepulciano (Italy)

Dry with flavours of vegetables and herbs

  • Sangiovese (Italy)
  • Carménère (France)
  • Cabernet Franc (France, Canada)
  • Lagrein (Italy, California)
  • Cabernet Sauvignon (France, Canada)

Dry with flavours of tart fruits and flowers

  • Mencía (Spain)
  • Valpolicella (Italy)
  • Rhône Blend (France)
  • Beaujolais (France)
  • Burgundy (France)
  • Syrah (France)
  • Merlot (France)
  • Trincadeira (Portugal)

Dry with flavours of ripe fruits and spices

  • Garnacha (France, Spain)
  • Amarone Della Valpolicella (Italy)
  • Negroamaro (Italy)
  • Pinotage (South Africa, Brazil, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, United States, Zimbabwe
  • Cabernet Sauvignon (Australia, Argentina, Chile, California)
  • Merlot (United States, Canada)
  • Alfrocheiro (Portugal)
  • Alicante Bouschet (France)

Dry with flavours of fruit sauce and vanilla

  • Shiraz (Australia, Chile, California)
  • Monastrell (Spain)
  • Malbec (Argentina)
  • Nero D’Avola (Italy)
  • Petite Syrah (United States)
  • Primitivo (Italy)
  • Zinfandel (California)
  • Grenache (California)
  • Touriga Nacional (Portugal)

Semi-sweet with flavours of candied fruit and flowers

  • Lambrusco (Italy)
  • Brachetto D’Acqui (Italy)
  • Recioto Della Valpolicella (Italy)

Sweet with flavours of fruit jam and chocolate

  • Port (Portugal)
  • Banyuls (France)
  • Maury (France)

Very sweet with flavours of figs raisins and dates

  • Tawny Port (Portugal)
  • Vin Santo (Italy)

Final Thoughts

Depending on where a grape is grown, the characteristics may change somewhat.  The climate and soil can be a great influence over taste.  For example Pinot Noir from Burgundy, France can be very different from the same varietal grown in Canada or the United States.  The same applies to any other varietal grown in multiple climates.

Sláinte mhaith

4 thoughts on “How Sweet Wine Is

  1. Very interesting and I learned about sweetness I never knew before. Always look forward to your Saturday morning wine lesson which is very informative and easy to understand. Thanks.

    Like

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