Just like your mother always told you, “There are some words that are simply inappropriate to use.”
The “S” word, Sweet, is not always a bad word when describing wine
In the wine world, “sweet” is one of those inappropriate words your mother warned you about. Not because it is a bad word — it does have an appropriate time and place. Yet, for many consumers, particularly those new to wine, it is a description that is often misunderstood and misused. The confusion is leading many down the wrong path when trying to find wines they truly enjoy.
Sweet is a misunderstood word when describing wine flavour
Wine professionals use the term “sweet” to indicate the amount of residual sugar in a wine. Sweetness is simply the presence or absence of sugar in wine. Professional wine training teaches us that sweetness and flavour are not the same thing.
That “sweet” taste sensation you may or may not love isn’t always due to sugar content. More often than not it is the result of the wine’s fruitiness. What our senses perceive as a “sweet” flavour is not always dependent on residual sugar. It is more often due to the intensity of the wine’s fruitiness.
“It’s about getting new wine lovers and wine store staff speaking the same language. When a customer says they like a sweet wine, our first instinct is to point them to a wine high in residual sugar. Yet what the customer really wants is a very fruit-forward wine. A wine can have a fruity sensation, yet technically be dry — that is, very low in residual sugar.” Mike Roberts, Sommelier Manager at Co-op Wine Spirits Beer.
Mike Roberts tells us that sweetness is perceived and felt on the tongue as a texture, not flavour. This sensation appears at the tip and the top of the tongue – and has weight. Sugar perception is a heavy, almost tongue-coating, sensation.
“We each have our own individual abilities to perceive sweetness on the palate. This is where the water is muddied. Tannin (mouth drying) and acidity (mouth watering) both will influence our ability to perceive a wine’s sweetness and make it seem more or less sweet.”
Replace the “Sweet” with the “F” word!
If the average consumer learns to use the word fruity or the phrase fruit forward and the average wine professional learns to ask the average consumer for clarification when they use the word sweet, we just might be able to get on the same page!
What do we mean by that?
As a consumer, if you really do want a wine with a higher sugar level, then sweet is definitely the appropriate word to use. If you’re looking for a wine with lots of yummy fruit flavours, using that terminology has a much better chance of getting you the wine you want, rather than using the word “sweet.”
Wine professionals, ask questions! Not everyone has the training and vocabulary that you do. Just because “sweet” might be the wrong word, doesn’t mean you can’t ask a few probing questions to find out exactly what the consumer is really looking for.
These Wine Sweetness Descriptors might give you the words you need:
Bone Dry – Noticeable dryness. no residual sugar. clean, acidic finish
Dry – No perceived sweetness. well-rounded with balanced acidity
Off-dry – Slight sweetness perceived. finishes clean
Medium Sweet – Noticeably sweet
Sweet – Distinctively sweet (Dessert Wine)
Since we’re on the topic of sweet, let’s not forget the “D” word
Dry is another word that is widely used, but may not accurately reflect the type of wine you are seeking.
Saying you’re looking for a “dry red” describes nearly every red wine on the shelf or on a wine list — as most reds have a very low ratio of residual sugar. Those who like “dry wines” are likely looking for a wine that is not as fruit driven, has more savoury notes, textured tannins, vivacious acidity, and a dry feel.
In this case you may want to describe the wine as mineral driven or earthy with mouth drying tannins. In this case it would be safe to say you don’t want a “fruit bomb” or a fruit driven wine.
The final word on avoiding the term sweet and finding a wine you’ll enjoy
Cool Climate vs Hot Climate wines
A simple tip: a cool climate tends to produce wines that are less viscous, have higher acidity, and can seem drier. A hot climate will fully ripen grapes and tannins – helping to create a plush and fruit-filled wine that is often full-bodied and more tropical in style.
Record Your Wines in a Journal or App
Perhaps the best way to help us help you find a wine you’ll love is by keeping a list of those you’ve tried and have enjoyed. There are actually a number of cool apps like Just Wine that let you take photos of the label, makes notes, and rate the wine.
Go ahead — use the “F” word!
And next time you’re searching for a new wine, don’t be embarrassed to use the “F” word — “Fruitiness.”
Thirsty for more? Check out What’s your Style and learn now alcohol content determines a wine’s style.