A lot of what we are asked to buy these days is sweet wine masquerading as dry.
I have often received letters from readers mentioning that some of the Sauvignon Blancs they had were slightly sweet wines, and they wanted to know why they couldn’t find a really dry wine.
Sweet Wine vs. Dry: What we do vs. What we say
This hits at the heart of a much larger story about how wines are being made these days, and the fact that, as the old saying goes, “Americans talk dry but drink sweet.” Translation: Most U.S. wine drinkers say they prefer dry wines, but when push comes to shove, they often buy sweet wines.
That is why so many of today’s white wines are sweeter than they were 20 years ago: many consumers like them. The contrast is most noticeable between California Chardonnay and French white Burgundy. The former often are rich, unctuous and soft; at the lower price points, most are slightly sweet.
The World of Sweet Wines
However, most French white Burgundies are totally dry, and lower in alcohol. Some people think white Burgundy is so dry they prefer domestic Chardonnay. Others think California Chardonnay is flaccid and they prefer the crispness of the imports.
Many California Sauvignon Blancs are made intentionally with residual sugar, so to most people it tastes dry, but those with sensitive palates can detect the sugar. A totally dry Sauvignon Blanc would be a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume from the Loire Valley in France.
Similarly, not all Rieslings are as sweet as they once were. A German Riesling designated Kabinett, for instance, will be a moderately sweet wine. However, most Australian Rieslings are totally dry.
Viognier is a grape with a floral aroma of peaches and honeysuckle and a rich texture. Some people like it for that fleshy, almost unctuous mouth-feel which can taste a bit like a slightly sweet wine. Yet its French counterpart, Condrieu, from the Rhone Valley, often is dry and delicate.
Pinot Grigio from Italy is typically made dry, but some California producers of Pinot Gris (same grape) now leave a bit of sugar in their versions to make them a bit softer in taste.
And although most textbooks state that Alsace makes a wide array of dry white wines, most these days are a lot sweeter than they ever have been, an obvious appeal to those who prefer sugar over angularity.
Unfortunately, few wine makers now state on their labels whether their white wines are sweet, medium-sweet, medium-dry, or dry. And part of the reason for this is that the sweetness in a wine isn’t related only to how much sugar it has, but also how much acid is in the wine, along with its pH.
All this complicates matters, which is why the International Riesling Foundation (IRF) now uses a sweetness scale that it hopes all wineries adopt to inform the public how sweet or dry their wines are. Wineries who desire to use the scale properly can go on the IRF web site (www.drinkriesling.com) and see the technical guidelines that allow a wine maker to determine how dry or sweet his or her wine is.
Sweet wine and acidity
But a key point to remember is the amount of sugar in a sweet wine is not as important as is the way that sweetness works with the wine’s acidity. I have had many wines with substantial amounts of sugar that tasted balanced because the sugar was structured to work with the (high) acidity in the wine.