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How can dry wine taste sweet?

In other words, it’s possible to have a wine be very low in RS (bone dry) but still taste sweet. The sweet perception in that case isn’t RS, it is fruit sweetness in combination with the sweetness perception that is imparted by alcohol. Since alcohol comes from the fermentation of sugar, it can, but doesn’t always, impart a hint of sweetness.

One of our Angel-funded winemakers posted in Naked Newbies about why some dry wines taste sweet, and explained the nuances of the perception of sweetness.

The winemaker in question is Tim Olson whose Unti Syrah has been featured on the blog before.

Tim’s post in Naked Newbies

Timothy Olson
Timothy Olson, winemaker

Josette, I’ll take a stab at this but it isn’t as simple as you might think. “Dry” and “Sweet” are linked together by chemistry but are different. A wine can be both!

Many wine drinkers refer to the level of residual sugar (RS) in terms of dry or sweet. But these are descriptive terms not quantitative terms. The word perception is a key issue here. In other words, it’s possible to have a wine be very low in RS (bone dry) but still taste sweet. The sweet perception in that case isn’t RS, it is fruit sweetness in combination with the sweetness perception that is imparted by alcohol. Since alcohol comes from the fermentation of sugar, it can, but doesn’t always, impart a hint of sweetness.

In well made wines that aren’t beat up during processing or elevage, the fruit characters are retained to a level that also can impart the perception of sweetness. My wines are almost always fermented to “dryness” but nonetheless impart perceptions of sweetness. Some of the Angel reviews have accused my dry wines of being sweet.

And that is because I don’t beat my wines up. I practice a non interventionist style-do what is needed but no more than necessary. I take the same approach to cooking. Simple is best. The goal is to leave as much natural flavor and character as possible in the finished product. The key is to start with high quality ingredients.

In terms of the technical stuff, industry standards generally consider a wine dry at 1-2 grams per liter (0.1%-0.2%). Human sensory threshold for sweetness in wine is generally in the 0.3%-0.4% range. It varies per individual as we all have higher and lower sensitivities to certain flavors, aromas and characteristics.

Also contributing to the perception of dryness (or conversely sweetness) is the grape variety, the finished alcohol level, the tannin and phenolic levels, the types of tannin, the vintage, the AVA, the winemaker and their personal style of wines, etc. And on any given day our tasting abilities go up and down with our mood, the time of day, our levels of stress and other factors.

And the biggest factor? Are you drinking the wine solo or with food? Many dry red wines can taste a bit sweet, even when bone dry by RS standards, if they’re being consumed solo because today’s modern reds, driven by consumer demand, are riper (more fruity, less tannic) and higher in alcohol (15%+) compared to 20-30 years ago. That same wine, if consumed with food will taste quite different. In summary, depending on the food involved, a wine can taste drier or sweeter than it is when drunk solo.

My personal style as a winemaker is to make wines that are meant to go with food. Consumed solo, they can appear a bit lean and acidic. But with food, they come alive and that acidity balances out the fat in the food.

Sorry for the long winded answer but it’s an important topic. It serves as the foundation for the endless combinations that wine and food offer and when understood and employed properly, these principles open a world of sensory adventure and pleasure.

PS: The short answer to Chris’ question is that most but not all of the red wines on our site are dry by RS standards. In particular, the Cabernets, Merlots, Pinots and Syrahs tend to be quite dry.

And now you know the whole story!

Great info from Tim! I’d also add that acidity often balances out sweetness so wines that do have residual sugar don’t taste as sweet because of their crispness.

Interested in more about how a wine’s balance can affect sweetness? Check out Jim’s post about the interplay of acidity, sugar and alcohol in his sweet Napa Cabernet, Shoot the Moon!

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