I always encourage my customers not to think of wine in terms of sweet and dry. In a technical sense, sweetness is just a measure of what remaining sugar is left in the wine after the fermentation is complete. Anything under 10 grams of sugar per liter is considered “dry” and outside of truly sweet wines like late harvest dessert wines, ports and some sherries, everything else on the shelves is considered dry. The other way to look at “sweetness” is really a perception and feeling of whether or not the wine conveys an impression of sweetness or dryness. This is totally subjective and is without question THE most misunderstood thing about wine by the average consumer.
The components making up the structure of wine, namely fruit, acidity and tannins, are the big players here. Acidity comes across as tart or even sour and can give an impression of dryness, even if the wine is fairly sweet. Think of high-acid fruits like lemons or cranberries. We add sugar to these when making lemonade or cranberry sauce in order to balance the tart acidity of the fruit and make it more palatable. It depends on how much sugar you add, but even lemonade can feel dry to the taste, especially if you haven’t added too much sugar.
Tannins have an astringent quality and feel dry, especially reacting on the sides of the mouth. Black tea, which also has tannins, gives a similar dry feeling and thinking of that is a good way to understand this. Adding a sweetener, like sugar or honey, to a cup of tea helps to balance the tannins in much the same way that natural sweetness in ripe grapes balances the tannins in red wine.
It’s this balance that we look for. While tannins and acidity are different, they both play a role in balancing wines and are reasons that wine tastes like, well, wine, rather than sugary grape juice. Wines can give an impression of sweetness, even though they are dry, and that’s when tasters use words like “ripeness” and “fruitiness” as descriptors. A wine, such a California Cabernet Sauvignon, can be very ripe and fruity yet finish dry. You might see a wine critic say something like, “The wine has great sweetness in the mid-palate…” which just means that the wine was made from very ripe fruit and conveys that taste impression, not meaning that the wine is sweet as a whole.
As I mentioned, the terms sweet and dry are so subjective with people that it’s helpful to think differently when tasting wine. Here are few basic wine components and descriptions to consider.
Acidity —Tartness. I find that my customers have a wide variety of reactions to acidity. If you are using words light “sour” it’s a good bet that lower acid wines are more to your taste. If you are using words like “crisp”, “bright” and “fresh” then chances are you like acidity.
Tannins—Astringent and although sometimes bitter, it’s more of a feeling than an actual taste. Pay attention especially to the finish of the wine where the tannins will present themselves. A common word is “grip,”or if the tannins are strong then they are said to “clamp down.”
Ripeness—A general impression of how ripe the grapes are, usually shows in the entrance (first taste) and middle (or mid-palate) of the sip. Ripe and fruity work independently of acidity and tannins. In a good wine they complement each other.
Light, Heavy, Midweight, Full, Dense—Words like these describe a feeling of the weight of the wine in your mouth. This takes into consideration all the factors at work.
Thinking and speaking in these terms will help you not only in your understanding of wine but will also be of great use to you when purchasing in stores and restaurants. The more accurately you can describe what you are looking for in an objective way the easier it will be for a sommelier, waiter or salesperson to help you select a wine that you’ll love. It’s all really part of the fun and the adventure, so enjoy.
Michael Amendola is wine director at The Village Wine Merchant in Sea Cliff. Learn more about wines at www.villagewinemerchant.com