Elements of wine—sweetness/dryness

Wine has five components that determine taste and quality: alcohol, acid, tannin, sweetness/dryness, fruitiness. Previously alcohol, acid, and tannin; this week sweetness/dryness.

Sweetness/dryness links to essence of wine: conversion of grape juice sugar into alcohol.

If all or most of the sugar in the grape juice converts to alcohol, wine is dry (not sweet). If sugar remains, wine has “residual sugar” and is sweet.

Seems simple. Is not.

Fruitiness (next week) is part of the equation. Fruitiness can seem sweet, but fruitiness and sweetness are not the same thing. Fruity wines can be sweet or dry. Red wines seldom are sweet, but they can be fruity and give illusion of sweetness. Fruitiness balances dryness, especially in young reds.

Beginning wine drinkers favor sweet, thus the popularity of White Zinfandel (which isn’t a white, but a rosé). Yellow Tail Shiraz and Yellow Tail Cabernet-Merlot are made to be sweet and fruity because marketing studies showed that’s what novice American wine drinkers enjoy.

How sweet can wine get? Very. Some dessert wines, usually made from late-harvest, sugar-laden grapes, can soar to 30 percent sugar. That’s where acid (last week’s column) gallops to the rescue. Riesling and Chenin Blanc, in particular, deliver enough acid and to keep residual sugar in balance.

High sugar/sweetness not balanced by acid: cough syrup. High sugar/sweetness balanced by acid: some of the most famous wines in the world.


• Messina Hof Chenin Blanc. Slightly sweet, very fruity. Texas award winner. $6

• Monchof Estate Riesling. Very floral, peaches and red fruits. $18

• Chateau Suduiraut Sauternes (375 ml). Medium sweet, great aromatics, citrus, apple, crisp finish. $29