One of the most challenging concepts to get many of my customers to understand is the difference between sweetness and fruit-forwardness in a wine. While these two qualities can go hand in hand, it is not always the case. Sweetness comes from the residual sugar (RS) present in a wine, and it can be chemically quantified. The natural sugar in grapes is turned into alcohol in the process of fermentation, and the winemaker can control when to stop fermentation to achieve the right balance between RS and alcohol. RS is measured in grams /liter: up to 3g/l can be considered “very dry” (almost imperceptible); up to 10 g/l “dry”; 10-30 g/l “off dry”; over 30 g/l “sweet”. Most of the wines I sell in my store have RS of less than 10 g/l, so they would be called dry. But an individual’s perception of sweetness is influenced by a number of factors. One factor is the individual’s palate and how many taste buds one has to sense sugar. Another factor involves the other characteristics present in the particular wine. For example, a wine that is very high in acid can support a higher level of RS without tasting sweet. Conversely, a wine that does not have much acid may come off as slightly sweet, even though it has a relatively low level of RS.
Fruit-forwardness describes the various fruit flavors (blackberries, cherries, apple, pear, pineapple, lemon,…), which come from the different grapes (not additives) used to make a wine. And these flavors need not be sweet. If you make three different glasses of lemonade (squeezing one lemon in each), and you put no sugar in one, one teaspoon of sugar in another, and three teaspoons in the third, they would all be equally “lemony” (fruit forward). But their sweetness would vary. If you have ever tasted unsweetened cranberry juice, you know how sour and unsweet a drink can be, but you can still get the strong cranberry fruit taste blindfolded. Similarly, you could vary the amount of lemon juice in each glass in our example above, but add the same amount of sugar to each glass. Then the fruit-forwardness would vary, but the RS would be the same for each glass.
So when customers come in and say they want a dry Chardonnay, I need to ask some questions to calibrate what dry means to them. If they say they like Rombauer Chardonnay, I then know that they do like some noticeable RS in their wine. If they say a particular Napa Cabernet is too sweet, then they are probably saying it is too fruit forward – and maybe the RS is slightly higher and the acidity lower than in those cabs they like. With the right kind of feedback I can find pleasing wines for just about everyone.
In general, wines from France and Italy (Old World) have less residual sugar, are less fruit forward, and are higher in acid than California (New World) wines – which make them a better complement to food. That is why some California wine drinkers find European wines too dry. Conversely, European wine drinkers often find American wines too sweet, even though this is not just a question of residual sugar, but also the lower acidity and extracted fruit-forwardness which is making the sugar stand out more. We will dig a little deeper into this in the next Blog.