WTF is the deal with sweetness in wine?

Welcome to another edition of Wine WTFs! In this series we’ll explore wine terms and ideas and try to figure out what the fuss is all about. Last time we discovered wtf acidity is all about.

This time around we’re going to talk about something you probably know really well already, but maybe not in the context of wine.

You loved it as a kid. Couldn’t get enough of it. Maybe you’ve moved on to other things, or maybe the love affair stayed so long and strong that even your teeth crave it.

But wait – what’s the deal with sweetness in wine??

Where sweetness comes from

I’m going to be straight with you – almost every wine has sweetness (aka residual sugar) in it. Even the dry ones. Yes, I’m for real. No, I’m not messing with you.

This is because (duh) wine is made of fruit, and fruit contains natural sugars. Even though most of the sugars get converted to alcohol during fermentation, wines usually retain a little bit of sweetness even after fermentation ends. This is called residual sugar and usually ranges from 1 gram per litre (or g/L) to 45g/L. Anything over 45 g/L is considered a sweet wine, but we’ll get to that later.

Sometimes winemakers will also add a sweetening agent to wines, either to balance out the wine and sometimes (ack!) to hide a wine’s flaws. See exhibit A: many (but not all!) cheap, mass produced wines.

How to taste for sweetness is wine

Personally, I find sweetness hard to pin down sometimes. Because regular wines are technically ‘dry’, you know? So how are you supposed to be able to taste something that’s barely there?

And yet, there is a way. A fuzzy or slightly oily feeling on your tongue that lingers after taking a sip can be a clue to a wine’s sweetness. Sometimes fruitiness or juiciness can be a clue as well. The tough thing about identifying sweetness in wine is that tannins and acidity often counteract the sweetness, making it hard to taste for.

Some wines, like Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat, come by their higher levels of residual sugar honestly. Others, like many cheaper red wines, often have higher residual sugar in an effort to make them taste fruity and juicy.

Snobby winos would say something about this not being a pure expression of the wine or its terroir. On one hand I agree with them. But on the other hand, if you like drinking your $11 cab sauv, more power to you!

If you want to practice tasting for sweetness then set yourself up with a tasting of at least three wines, all with different levels of residual sugar. Make sure they’re at least 5-10g/L apart, and taste them from least amount of sugar to highest. Then lock that sense memory away and you’ll have the sweetness thing down pat.

Going all in on wine sweetness

If you’re looking for practice in training your palate to understand residual sugar, look no further than the multitude of sweet wines available.

Each type of sweet wine comes with its own method of winemaking. Every method involves some form of concentrating the flavours locked away in grapes.

Here are some ways sweet wines are made:

  • Icewine is made by letting grapes freeze on the vine and then harvesting them. This makes a wine that retains its fruit character like whoa.
  • Recioto is made by harvesting grapes and then letting them dry on straw mats in the hot Italian sun. You’re basically making wine out of raisins at this point. Holy concentrated flavour!
  • Some sweet wines are made by letting grapes dry out on the vine, similar to making recioto. Look for ‘late harvest’ on the bottle for this method.
  • Sauternes is made by making careful use of a rot called botrytis which eats away at the grape and concentrates the flavours. Winemakers love botrytis so much they call it noble rot.

Also, as we now know, acidity plays a key role in sweet wines. Without acidity these wines would be too sweet for even the sweetest of sweet-tooths to handle!


Do you like sweetness in wine?


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