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
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