When I do wine tastings, a lot of people say, “I don’t like dry wines – I only like sweet wines.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with liking sweet wine. A person’s taste is…well…personal. However, the notion of a wine as either “dry” or “sweet” is little more than a logical fallacy – the same fallacy used so effectively by certain political parties: the false dichotomy.
In case you haven’t taken a philosophy class lately, a false dichotomy is presenting two alternatives as an either-or choice, even though other alternatives exist. “You’re either with us or against us” is a classic example, because rarely are things that clear cut. (Unless you’re a Teabagger …)
Yes, one can think of “dry” and “sweet” as the ends of a range, but using “dry” and “sweet” as the way to describe a wine is a false choice. Why? Because not only are there countless shades of gray in between the two, but there are also other ranges that play into wine’s flavor that get lumped into “dry” or “sweet” – so one can’t simply isolate the level of sugar and call it a description.
When most people start learning about wine, they gravitate towards the varietals they’ve heard people talk about over and over: cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, white zinfandel. For many, the first experience with red wine is with big ol’ California cabs, and the high level of tannins isn’t an easy thing to deal with initially. So, after what probably wasn’t a pleasant experience, they ask someone about the wine and get “Oh, red wines are dry wines. That’s why they taste so strong.”
There’s a similar effect with chardonnay, especially California chardonnay. A mouthful of butter-covered charcoal can be a rough start. (Yes, oaky chardonnays are tannic whites.) They hear, “Yep. Chardonnay. That’s a dry white wine.” Our poor newbie then turns to the bottle of Beringer White Zin. It tastes sweet and easy to drink (and brings back memories of high school Boone’s Farm adventures) – so they stick with pink syrup and now have a prejudice against a huge slice of the wine world.
Seriously, think about how bitter your first espresso was. Coffee’s bitterness also comes from tannins. (Mine was in a coffee shop in the Mission District of San Francisco. Took me 45 minutes to drink the damned thing…and it wasn’t exactly enjoyable.) While the bitterness of tannin can have a “drying” effect – it’s not what makes a wine “dry.” A wine’s dryness or sweetness comes from sugar, not tannin.
Think about how wine is made. As I’ve mentioned before, when yeast is added to the grape’s juice, the yeast eats the sugar, farts carbon dioxide, and pisses alcohol (until it dies of either starvation or alcohol poisoning). If the yeast consumes all of the sugar in a vat of juice, the wine is totally dry. When a winemaker stops the fermentation before all the sugar is consumed, what’s left over is the residual sugar. The more residual sugar, the greater the level of sweetness. If you’re looking at the specs on a bottle of wine, the amount of residual sugar is either presented as a percentage or in grams per liter. (Take g/l, divide by 10, and stick a % on the end if you want to convert.) Dry wines will be under 1% residual sugar, if they have any at all. Off-dry wines will be between 1-5%. Sweet wines will be 5% and up. Also, the higher the residual sugar, in general, the lower the alcohol content.
Why would a winemaker leave residual sugar in a wine? A winemaker worth his or her salt strives for balance in wine. The balance of dry and sweet is an important factor. Too much sugar and the sweetness overwhelm everything else. Not enough and other flavors can take over, rendering a wine unpleasant. The balance for sweetness is acidity. To keep a sweeter wine balanced, the acid level needs to go up. Too little acid and too much sugar makes for a white zinfandelish experience.
As for red wines, “dry” and “sweet” don’t really apply, since there are very few “sweet” reds. Most red wines contain virtually no residual sugar. If you’re describing a red, you’re going to be more interested in the level of tannin than the sweetness, so there’s not really a complement to the “dry” of tannin – other than “not tannic.”
(There’s also another reason why winemakers leave residual sugar. There’s an old saying: “A little sugar covers a lot of flaws.” These winemakers are either unlucky or lazy.)
But let’s get back to the whole dry/sweet question. Stepping outside the world of White Zinfandel, word association with “sweet wine” usually lands on Riesling. If we just want to look at the real difference between sweet and dry, white wine is the easiest place to get an illustration – Riesling especially. While the fruit and other flavor characteristics are certainly varied, let’s just focus on the sugar levels for now. I looked at three Rieslings.:
- Pierre Sparr 2008 Riesling Alsace (bone dry)
- D’Arenberg 2007 “The Dry Dam” Riesling (off-dry)
- Mönchof 2006 Estate Riesling QbA (sweet)
If you decide to try these side-by-side-by side, start with the driest and work your way to the sweetest. Pour, swirl, and sip. The differences will literally leap out of the glass at you.
First, the Pierre Sparr. A lot of folks have “tooth achingly sweet” as their mental reference for Riesling. A sip of this will throw that notion out the window. There’s almost no sweetness to this wine at all. There’s plenty of fruit and a little bit of a mineral finish, but the yeast has done its work here. This is common with Rieslings (and most other whites) from Alsace. The general wine style is very dry. Residual Sugar – basically none.
Secondly, try the D’Arenberg. This is a good example of a wine that’s “off-dry,” which means that there’s a little bit of residual sugar as a balancing agent for the other flavors. In this case, the D’Arenberg is a fairly acidic wine, so a little residual sugar tames the tart “bite” that acidic wines often have. The sugar is more of an honey undertone than sweetness right up in your face. Residual sugar – 1.1%
Finally, the Mönchof. You could certainly class this one as a sweet wine. The residual sugar level is about 5%, which also yields a lower-alcohol wine. The acid level is similar to the D’Arenberg – but the acid in this case prevents the wine from becoming syrupy. If you want a general idea of the level of sweetness and flavor, think baked apples with a little less sugar. It’s still reasonably well-balanced and quite pleasant. (And, at under 10% alcohol, you could almost have it for breakfast.)
To go back to the beginning, to help someone transition away from the world of Black Tower, Beringer, and other such syrups, I’ll usually slide something along the lines of the D’Arenberg or a friendly sauvignon blanc. I might then let them try a merlot or zinfandel if they’re willing to go red. Once they’ve made that transition, it’s a quick jump to broadening the horizons – which is the point of trying new wines, after all…