A Fine Line Between Sweet And Dry Wine

The boundaries between dry and sweet wines are much more blurred today than I can remember. Moscato d’Asti is the rage, and sweet red wines are even more abundant than “dry” red wine drinkers can imagine. To purists and geeks, it is quite easy to tell the difference between sweet and dry, but for most wine drinkers perception is no longer truth.

Sweet and dry are on the same plane on your palate. They are polar opposites. In the Master Sommelier program, we teach tasters a basic five levels of dryness/sweetness. From driest to sweetest, it goes from bone dry to dry to off-dry to sweet to dessert sweet. This can be distilled even further to 1 through 5 on a scale. The actual sweetness of a wine can be measured easily by analyzing the content of residual sugar, usually expressed in grams/liter. This determines the exact amount of sweetness in the wine.

But perceptible sweetness in a wine can be different from its actual sweetness. How sweet or dry a wine tastes to us also can change according to the amount of acidity and alcohol a wine contains. The higher the acidity in a wine, typically the drier it tastes. Think about wines from truly cold growing climates or wines that are intrinsically high in acid such as French Chablis or Chenin Blanc. The perception of these wines is wine is bone dry. But also consider that the higher the alcohol in a wine, the sweeter a wine can taste. Alcohol in the form of glycerol is actually sweet to the taste.

Most people would say that they are dry wine drinkers, as would I. The rub is that there are a lot of wines that push the dryness envelope into the sweeter realm. For whatever reason, sweet wines are going uber-popular. I think, in order to sell more wine, producers are taking advantage of this movement toward sweeter styles of wine by ever so slightly turning the dial on dry wines toward the sweet spectrum. What was once bone dry is now dry. What was once dry is now somewhere between dry and off-dry. The wine becomes a little more palatable, or also can provide a jumping point if you are used to drinking Moscato d’Asti or anything else off-dry or sweeter.

Mind you, this is not a majority stake of the wine world. It is mostly the ones that are trying to make a niche for themselves, and brands that are marketed and produced without a history or even without their own vineyards. They are mass-market wines. They are typically blends and come in both colors. Add to this stylistic shift in wines the fact that there are still a lot of wines that are purposefully made sweet, and you have even a less clear picture of what is dry and what is sweet.

When searching for wines of this nature, the most important descriptor would be on the palate and its apparent sweetness level. Aroma descriptors such as tropical fruit, jammy, compote or preserves can be used for both sweet and dry wines.

But the sweetness is found on the finish or aftertaste of the wine. So be aware that although you may think you are drinking a dry red wine, you may just have a touch of sweetness in your glass.

Recommendations: 2010 Coppola Director’s Cut Chardonnay ($17) Lovely wine here. Round but not fat, rich but balanced and tons of perfectly ripe orchard fruit. It touches all the right taste buds. NV Veuve Fourny Blanc de Blancs ($49) This small producer makes some wonderfully elegant Champagnes, the kind you imagine sipping next to the pool or before a luxurious dinner. Its Blanc de Blanc has real touch and a purity of flavor that begs to be savored.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. Email rviernes@southernwine.co m or follow him on Twitter @Pinotpusher.