Sweet­ness in wines

Wine la­bels can be con­fus­ing when it comes to in­di­cat­ing how sweet a wine will taste. But help is at hand, as Matt Walls of­fers some use­ful point­ers to help you nav­i­gate the space be­tween sweet and dry

Decanter - - CONTENTS - Matt Walls is a De­can­ter con­tribut­ing editor and the DWWA Re­gional Chair for the Rhône

Matt Walls of­fers a help­ful guide to se­lect­ing sweet wine

IT hAp­pENs To us all once in a while. You open a bot­tle, take a sip, and in­stead of a dry wine, your tongue flags up an un­ex­pected sweet­ness. It’s rarely an is­sue with red wines, and fully sweet dessert wines are rel­a­tively easy to spot (smaller bot­tles, higher prices, usu­ally mer­chan­dised separately), but some medium-dry and medium-sweet white wines can ap­pear to the eye al­most iden­ti­cal to their dry coun­ter­parts. how­ever, there are cer­tain clues you can gather from grape va­ri­ety, re­gional tra­di­tion or la­bel ter­mi­nol­ogy that can lead you in the right di­rec­tion.

And by ‘right’ di­rec­tion, I don’t nec­es­sar­ily mean to­wards a dry wine. Dry­ness can mis­tak­enly be seen as a sign of so­phis­ti­ca­tion or qual­ity, per­haps be­cause many mass-market wines con­tain some su­gar. But sweet­ness is noth­ing to be wary of. on the con­trary, the ju­di­cious with­hold­ing of resid­ual su­gar gives wine­mak­ers scope to play with struc­ture, bal­ance and flavour. Not all of the great­est wines are fully dry or fully sweet. The tricky part is know­ing when best to drink them.

Ex­cept for some re­gional cu­riosi­ties, semi-sweet wines are usu­ally pro­duced in

cool-cli­mate re­gions, es­pe­cially the Loire, Al­sace and Ger­many. Ei­ther that, or they’re made else­where with as­so­ci­ated grape va­ri­eties. And no grape is more closely in­ter­twined with semi-sweet styles than Ries­ling.

Ger­many and Ries­ling

Even a glimpse of the tra­di­tional Ger­man flute-shaped bot­tle can sug­gest sweet­ness. It’s un­der­stand­able: Ries­ling re­tains acid­ity as it ripens, so a de­gree of nat­u­ral un­fer­mented grape su­gar in the wine is fairly com­mon to bring bal­ance. Ger­many has also some­times strug­gled to fully ripen its grapes, so a lit­tle sweet­ness was prized. But tastes are chang­ing. Ac­cord­ing to St­ef­fen Schindler of the Ger­man Wine In­sti­tute: ‘Ger­man wine is drier than ever. To­day, al­most 70% of all wine pro­duced in Ger­many is dry or semi-dry. Back in the 1970s, more than two-thirds were sweet.’

The most use­ful term when iden­ti­fy­ing whether a Ger­man Ries­ling is dry or not is ‘trocken’, mean­ing ‘dry’. The im­pres­sion of sweet­ness in a wine isn’t just down to resid­ual su­gar, it’s also af­fected by the level of acid­ity. So, a trocken wine can have up to four grams per litre of resid­ual su­gar (4g/l RS), or up to 9g/l RS pro­vided that the to­tal acid­ity (TA) is no less than 2g/l be­low the level of resid­ual su­gar (so if a wine has 9g/l RS, it would need at least 7g/l TA). The terms ‘halb­trocken’ and ‘fein­herb’ mean medium-dry. But us­age of any of these terms is not oblig­a­tory.

If none of these words fea­ture on the la­bel, an­other way of check­ing is by look­ing for any Ger­man Prädikat ter­mi­nol­ogy. Prädikatweine is the cat­e­gory once called QmP or Qual­itätswein mit Prädikat – the high­est level of wine qual­ity in Ger­many. It’s ef­fec­tively a scale that refers to the ‘must weight’ of the grapes used (their de­gree of fer­mentable sug­ars be­fore fer­men­ta­tion) rather than the sweet­ness of the fin­ished wine. In as­cend­ing or­der of must weight: kabi­nett, spätlese, auslese, beer­e­nauslese and eiswein, trock­en­beer­e­nauslese. The last four are nowa­days al­ways sweet. Kabi­nett and spätlese can go ei­ther way, but an al­co­hol level of 12% or more would sug­gest that all the fer­mentable sug­ars have turned to al­co­hol and the wine is dry. The fi­nal term (I prom­ise) worth know­ing is grosses gewächs – a pres­tige cat­e­gory of Ger­man wines that is al­ways dry.

All this Ger­man ter­mi­nol­ogy is nec­es­sar­ily tech­ni­cal and is rel­a­tively com­plex com­pared to other re­gions, but at least it helps you make an ed­u­cated guess. With New World Ries­lings you have to rely on de­scrip­tions on the la­bel or know the pro­ducer. But gen­er­ally speak­ing Aus­tralian Ries­lings are usu­ally bone dry; New Zealand Ries­lings also tend to­wards dry­ness, but you can find some ex­cel­lent medium-dry and medium-sweet ex­am­ples, such as Pe­ga­sus Bay’s Bel Canto and Aria.

The trea­sures of Al­sace

Al­sace is ar­guably the great­est white wine re­gion in the world, and this is in part thanks to the way it has em­braced sweet­ness – a kind of third di­men­sion that can make other wine re­gions look flat in com­par­i­son. But speak­ing com­mer­cially, su­gar is also its great­est weak­ness; with­out the same ter­mi­nol­ogy as Ger­many, it’s even eas­ier to be caught out by un­ex­pected sweet­ness here than over the bor­der. Open­ing a semi-sweet wine when you’re ex­pect­ing a dry one needn’t be a big deal, but most of us have an idea of the style we feel like drink­ing at any given time. So, for many, it’s a case of once bit­ten, twice shy.

Un­usu­ally for France, the grape va­ri­eties are usu­ally stated on the la­bel; they are your first clue. Pinot Blanc, Syl­vaner and Mus­cat

‘Ger­man wine is drier than ever. To­day, al­most 70% of all wine pro­duced in Ger­many is dry or semi-dry’ St­ef­fen Schindler

are al­most al­ways dry. Pinot Gris and Gewurz­traminer are usu­ally off-dry but can be any­where from dry to medium-sweet (grand cru ex­am­ples are of­ten more no­tice­ably sweet). Ries­ling is usu­ally dry – but not al­ways. So how can you tell?

It’s in­creas­ingly com­mon to see a sweet­ness scale on the la­bel, de­picted ei­ther graph­i­cally or nu­mer­i­cally. It’s help­ful but not manda­tory. How­ever, within the next year or two, it’s highly likely that pro­duc­ers will be obliged to use ‘sec’ on the la­bel if the wine is tech­ni­cally dry. ‘Ven­dange tar­dive’ and ‘sélec­tion de grains no­bles’ wines are re­li­ably fully sweet.

Al­sace Ries­ling has been rapidly evolv­ing. The tra­di­tional style has long been dry, but in the 1990s there was a trend to­wards a sweeter ex­pres­sion. Trim­bach makes ex­clu­sively dry Ries­lings, and they have al­ways cham­pi­oned the dry style. Owner Jean Trim­bach says: ‘I’m happy to say for the last 10 years many of [the pro­duc­ers] who fell into sweet­ness – a sort of false rich­ness – are back to dry­ness again.’

But to taste the Ries­lings of an es­tate such as Do­maine Rolly Gass­mann, whose wines all have some de­gree of resid­ual sweet­ness, demon­strates that medium-dry Al­sace Ries­ling can be com­pellingly de­li­cious. Pierre Gass­mann ex­plains that there’s no in­di­ca­tion as to sweet­ness on his la­bels be­cause his wines are made with long age­ing in mind, and as wines ma­ture, the sen­sa­tion of sweet­ness grad­u­ally fades.

Gewurz­traminer is now grown around the world, and out­side Al­sace it’s usu­ally dry. Pinot Gris is just as wide­spread, and though nor­mally dry, it of­ten de­notes a richer style than when the grape is la­belled Pinot Gri­gio.

Chenin Blanc and the Loire

Chenin Blanc is an­other grape that re­tains its acid­ity as it ripens, so wine­mak­ers can play with a range of sweet­ness lev­els in a sim­i­lar way to Ries­ling. Its heart­land is the Mid­dle Loire re­gion in north­ern France, and al­though a num­ber of ap­pel­la­tions such as An­jou and even Saven­nières make a tiny amount of semi-sweet Chenin Blanc, its great­est ex­po­nents are the ap­pel­la­tions of Vou­vray and Mont­louis-sur-Loire.

It’s oblig­a­tory for their dry wines to dis­play the word ‘sec’ on the la­bel; it is mea­sured in a

‘Chenin Blanc is an­other grape that re­tains its acid­ity as it ripens, in a sim­i­lar way to Ries­ling’

sim­i­lar way to how trocken wines are mea­sured in Ger­many. For sweeter wines, there is a slid­ing scale up­wards from sec, to sec ten­dre, to demi-sec to moelleux, but these aren’t legally de­fined and are used at the pro­ducer’s dis­cre­tion. ‘Liquoreux’ and ‘sélec­tion de grains no­bles’ in­di­cate fully sweet wines.

Philippe Foreau of Do­maine du Clos Naudin makes Vou­vrays of vary­ing sweet­ness. He sees more de­mand for dry styles from restau­rants, while home drinkers buy across the board. Dry styles are the eas­i­est to match with food, but demi-sec can work bril­liantly with savoury dishes too, par­tic­u­larly with white meats, rich sauces or strong spic­ing. Moelleux wines are of­ten best drunk alone, be­fore or af­ter a meal. But it’s these sweeter styles that, ac­cord­ing to Sarah Hwang of Do­maine Huet, ‘best ra­di­ate the heart and soul’ of her do­maine ‘and carry on the wine­mak­ing tra­di­tions of Vou­vray’.

In years to come, we may won­der why so many of the wines we drank were hud­dled at the other end of the spec­trum.

Above: su­gar is a tool that wine­mak­ers can use to add com­plex­ity to their wines

Philippe Foreau of Do­maine du Clos Naudin

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