Sweetness in wine

Sweetness in wine is fruitful ground for disputation. Some will never drink sweet. Others will drink nothing else.

Sweetness, residual sugar, can be scientifically measured. In still wines, bone-dry is less than one gram per liter (g/L). Dry 1-17 g/L. Off-dry 17-35 g/L. Medium sweet 35-120 g/L. Sweet more than 120 g/L. All well and good, except experts don’t agree. Some claim dry is 0-10 g/L and off-dry is 11-30 g/L.

Sparkling wines have completely different sweetness nomenclature. Subject for another day.

To add complexity, a wine can taste sweet and still easily qualify as dry. The sense of sweetness is not based on residual sugar but on what is called “phenolic” or “physiological” ripeness achieved when the grapes are ripe. These wines tend to be straightforward, symmetrical, and generous—pleasurable in sensual terms. “Hedonistic” is a common descriptive adjective for such wines. Grenache is a wine where the flavor of ripe strawberries comes across as sweetness even though the wine clearly is dry.

Alcohol content—ABV (alcohol by volume)—is a clue to sweetness. Generally, the lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine, especially lower than 11% ABV. Alcohol is produced when yeast converts sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The more alcohol produced, the less sugar in the wine.

That guide falls apart around 16% ABV, the level when alcohol kills yeast. When the wine has a higher ABV you are in the realm of fortified wines. For those wines, once the alcohol level reaches around 12% fermentation is deliberately stopped by adding brandy, usually taking the ABV to 20%. The stopped fermentation leaves sugars in the wine, the brandy adds sweetness, and alcohol itself is perceived as sweet. Port is the best known of such wines.

Since this is wine, it cannot be simple. Makers of lower-end wines can add sugar during fermentation or after for consumers who enjoy sweetness. That also covers up flaws in lower quality grapes and winemaking, but ABV could only be 12%.

There is no reason to get into a brouhaha about sweetness. Some of the world’s greatest wines are sweet—Château d’Yquem, for instance. Some bone-dry wines are shrill swill. Drink what you like, sweetheart.

Last round: Another wine bottle emptied and no genie at the bottom. Well, I’m no quitter, and I will keep trying.

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