Wine Language - How Sweet It Is
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Wine Language - How Sweet It Is

Words and numbers are the most reliable indicators of sweetness or sugar level in wine. For those who really need to know—diabetics who must limit sugar intake or those on low carbohydrate diets—taste is a very poor guide. Many wines with significant levels of residual sugar taste less sweet than they could because of counterbalancing factors: acidity or tannin structure for example. At the other extreme, truly dry wines may tend to taste sweeter than the taster expects because of the ripeness of their fruit; the brain registers the ripe taste as a sweet taste.

In winemaking, yeast eats the sugar in the grape juice, creating alcohol, carbon dioxide, and flavor elements. In a dry wine, the yeast eats all the sugar it can find, but it never gets it all; you’ll always have a gram or two of residual sugar per liter. (The only foolproof way to get all the sugar out is by distillation, which creates an entirely different product.)

Winemakers have ways to stop fermentation before all the sugar is gone, yielding a sweet wine, or even a dry wine with a touch of sweetness. In some jurisdictions, winemakers can add sweetness back into the wine. A major California Chardonnay producer, it is reputed, adds a touch of “sweet reserve” made from the Muscat grape to win favor with the consuming public; the sugar level hovers just under the radar level for the average drinker, though professional tasters have no trouble noting it. A number of other mass-market branded wines employ similar tactics.

Wine labels rarely give residual sugar content, but you may sometimes find this information on the winemaker’s website, along with other specs, if you drill down patiently.

The European Community allows a non-sparkling wine to be called “dry” (secin French, trocken in German, secco or asciutto in Italian and seco in both Spanish and Portuguese) if it has less than 4 grams of residual sugar per liter, although a wine of up to 9 grams can be considered “dry” if its acidity levels trails the sugar by less than 2 grams (this doesn’t help the diabetic or hypoglycemic much, but it does show that sweetness is a function of taste in most cases).

The EU “medium dry” designation covers wines with up to 12 grams per liter. This is demi-sec in French, halbtrocken in German, abbocato (literally, “palatable”) in Italian and either semiseco or abocado in Spanish. The “medium sweet” level (12-45 grams) translates as moelleux (“mellow”) in French, lieblich (“lovable”) in German, amabile (also “lovable”) in Italian, semidulce in Spanish and amado (you guessed it, “lovable”) in Portuguese. Wines over 45 grams are “sweet,” doux in French, süss in German, dolce in Italian, dulce in Spanish and doce in Portuguese. The French term liquoreux refers to wines, often botrytized, that present themselves as syrupy sweet (the Italian liquoroso, on the other hand, connotes a strong, usually fortified wine as does the Portuguese term licoroso).

Despite the EU’s regulations, producers are not required to put sugar content on the labels of still wines. Sweetness labeling on sparkling wines is required, however, though the consumer is advised that many sparkling wines—Champagne is a perfect example—will have residual sweetness levels higher than taste seems to indicate to balance their acidity. In addition, label sweetness terms may be very confusing.

The biggest label confusion is the fact that “extra dry” (extra trocken in German, extra seco in Italian and Spanish) is three up from the bottom in terms of sweetness level. The 12-20 grams residual sugar per liter would put this in the medium-sweet category for a still wine. The next lowest sweetness category is the French brut (German herb, Italian and Spanish bruto) which must have a maximum of 15 grams. Add “extra” to any of these terms for the bone dry category that weighs in at less than 6 grams.

If “extra dry” is actually fairly sweet, then the familiar “dry,” sec, trocken, secco, asciutto, and seco are even sweeter still. The sweetest sparkling wines are “sweet” in English, doux in French, mild (the German term), dolce, dulce, or doce (in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, respectively).

In a good sparkling wine, the extra sugar is well offset by several elements not common in still wine, notably the yeast autolysis that takes place in bottle-fermented sparkling wines, the distinct acidity profiles, and of course the bubbles (which tend to make the wine taste less sweet than still wines of the same residual sugar level).

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In addition to my food and wine writing, I act as North American representative for Dialogue language schools. If you've always wanted to do an intensive session in French, Spanish, Italian or German in Europe before your wine tour, here's more information.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


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