Oaky flavour, strong nose, deep earthy notes, blackberry fruits dancing on your palate. Even those who consider themselves very much wine tasting novices will probably have heard of adjectives like these before.
It’s because you probably read it in a wine review or on the back of your wine bottle. Chances are that you might be wondering what it all means. Wine terminology might seem a little strange to the untrained tongue and maybe, no matter how hard you try, you still struggle to detect those citrus lemon grass notes in your most recently purchased glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
However, two terms that nearly all wine lovers will know and recognise on the tongue are dry and sweet. If your nose and tongue cannot claim the subtle detections on a par with a chief sommelier, most of us still understand what dry and sweet mean and can taste them pretty easily. You’ll often know which of your friends prefer dry or sweeter wines and even be able to say out of a group of wines you taste which are drier or sweeter. This is why many wines are ranked in supermarkets by dryness because this is a spectrum most of us are comfortable with.
But have you ever thought what creates this distinction? What makes this Sancerre drier than this Sauternes and why do some of us prefer drier wines than others?
Let’s explore the fascinating world of wine dryness levels.
What wine terminology do we use to describe the spectrum of dryness and sweetness?
A first thing to note is that both red and white wine can be measured according to dryness and sweetness. Typically, you’ll see red wines more often referred to as full bodied, light bodied or medium bodied and while this spectrum is a more popular comparison for red wine, they do have levels of dryness and sweetness.
Dry reds taste very different to dry white and the same goes for sweeter wines. In red wine, a very dry number would taste quite bitter.
Slightly less dry flavours, but still quite dry on the spectrum, will have savoury flavours then tart fruit flavours. As we go less dry spicier flavours are more common with candied fruit flavours in your sweetest reds before jammy and almost chocolatey sweet flavours in your ports and dessert wines.
Even if you cannot detect the full nuance of this spectrum most can immediately recognise that for white wines, the spectrum of dry versus sweet is notably different.
While you have that same heady fruity flavour and sugary taste in the very sweet white wines, as they turn drier the flavours go through tastes more akin to honey then through more tropical fruits flavours than the reds, which are often compared to berried fruits. The tart fruit notes at the mid dry level of white wines are less compared to raspberries, as is often the case with reds, and are compared more to grapefruit and green apple. The dry whites are often listed as having herb flavours with the very driest usually compared to citrus fruits like lemon.
So now, if you know whether you like dry or sweet wine, you should be able to better translate the flowery descriptors on wine bottles and know where they land on the spectrum.
But what actually makes a wine sweeter or drier and why do some of us prefer sweet wines or dry wines?
What makes some wines sweeter than others?
There are many factors that influence a wine’s sweetness and it is actually slightly different in white wines and red wines due to tannins.
Experts agree that 3 of the biggest components in a wine’s dry or sweet flavour are tannins, acidity and the wine’s nose or aroma.
While tannins are more commonly associated with red wines, white wines can have them too. Grape skins and seeds are a natural source of tannins, as is wood and as you know many wines are aged in oak barrels, so this is two sources that can influence dryness and it shows that length of time and method of storage play a vital role in the taste as well. Tannins are often associated with that dry taste. This is why red wines are rarely described as sweet and instead will be referred to as having various fruity flavours. A red white with a lot of tannins will be drier.
If you do come across a delightful tannic white wine look out for the words astringent in the wine’s descriptors terminology. Astringent is often associated with more tannic white wines, which will taste drier. This is often achieved by being aged sur lie (non-filtered, kept in contact with dead yeast cells).
As for why some people like a drier or sweeter wine, the actual makeup of your tongue may play a role. Some people have a sweet tooth and just prefer sweeter over savoury flavours, while others are the exact opposite. This is naturally going to have an effect on the wine you enjoy but some people are fundamentally more sensitive to tannins than others. If you have more naturally occurring proteins in your saliva you might be less sensitive to the dry taste of tannin.
Aroma has a big and deceptive effect on how we all perceive wine’s flavour. A wine that smells sweeter might not actually have higher fructose or glucose levels, but taste is actually a joint venture experience between your tongue and your nose. The nose can influence the brains’ perception of flavour, so fruitier smelling wines, will inevitably taste sweeter.
What about acidity? This is a big factor, especially in what makes us perceive whites as dry when they have less tannins.
What about sugars?
Before you understand acidity in wine, you need to understand the role of sugars, both in wine naturally and added by producers. Wine comes from grapes, which are a fruit, of course, and fruits contain sugars. Wine is created by a fermentation process and during this process the yeast consumes the sugars in the fruit. This means the duration of the fermentation process has a fundamental effect on wine sweetness. The longer the yeast consumes the natural sugars, the less of those fruity sugary flavours remain and the drier the wine.
However, not everything is so straight forward in the art of wine producing. To create consistency and work around nature’s influence on the grapes etc, wine producers can actually add sugar or grape juice back into a wine rather than having to stop fermentation early.
So, where does acidity come into all this talk of sugar?
Acidity is a core factor in how dry a wine taste because it offsets the sugars. If a wine is more acidic it will taste less sweet. In fact, some wines are so acidic, sugar can be added, and they still taste dry.
Acidity is present in both red and white wines but remember reds rarely taste stereotypically sweet (unless it is a port or dessert wine) because of their tannins, so acidity is often more of an influence in the perceived dryness of white wines because it is offsetting their sweet fruitiness. This is why you can actually have quite complex and interesting flavours in white wine. While they lack the full-bodied taste and tannin influence of the reds, they can maintain a fruitful flavour while still being dry, thanks to acidity.
As for what causes wine acidity, this is down to the grape itself and when it was harvested. If you’ve ever eaten grapes, you’ll know not every grape is as lovely and sweet as another. Grape sourness is really acidity. Grapes gain sugars and sweeten as they ripen, hence a grape harvested earlier in its life is going to be more acidic than a later harvested grape. This is why harvesting, and weather conditions have such a massive impact on wine and why the same wine in two different vintages can taste so very different. You will likely find greater variation in wines harvested from cooler climates where weather patterns year to year are less predictable and these regions often produce more famously acidic wines from having to harvest early to avoid frost damage to the grape vines.
Is dry wine better?
As you can see wine sweetness or dryness is quite a complex art controlled by multiple factors.
You may have noticed among wine lovers that there is often a prejudice towards drier wines as if these are better. Why does this prejudice exist?
Firstly, it is a somewhat unfounded prejudice as there are many incredible, high quality and complex tasting sweeter wines to explore.
One possible reason behind this belief is because younger people and new wine drinkers tend to prefer sweeter wines because they are not used to the harsher more alcoholic savoury notes in dry wine. Remember fermentation length, tannins and acidity all play a role in the taste and dryness. These harsher flavours can be an acquired taste. As our taste buds mature, we often widen our enjoyment of foods to encompass more bitter and sour flavours we previously didn’t enjoy when we were young. It is why strong cheeses and dry wine is often termed an ‘acquired’ taste.
You acquire an appreciation for it with age stereotypically, although everyone’s tongue and saliva proteins are different so there will be young people who prefer dry wines and savoury flavours and older individuals with a preference for sweet flavours. Hence the prejudice may come from a belief that sweet wines are more juvenile but any wine lover worth their stock who understands the delicate dance of wine production will know that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Now armed with your superior knowledge into wine dryness and sweetness you will find yourself exploring and enjoying wine in a whole new way.