Which White Wine is Sweet or Dry


26 Mar
26Mar



Which White Wine is Sweet or Dry?

                                                                        

    What is your favorite white wine? I ask this without malice aforethought. I have a simple reason. By establishing where your present preferences lie, I then can gauge where to recommend is a good starting point for further adventures. When I entered the retail trade all those years ago, I noticed the public had mostly one open question on their minds. Is the wine dry or sweet?  Since one person's dry is another sweet, I tried to qualitatively and ever so  gently ask, what do you presently drink and do you want something drier, the same or sweeter.   That was the first step away from “wine guy talk” towards our speaking a common language. That is truly going from the absolute to the relative!  Most people were talking like they drink relatively dry wines that, in absolute terms, were sort of sweet. I once worked for Kendall-Jackson with the popular Vintner’s Select Chardonnay.  It was considered by most consumers, as a dry wine.  It was an open secret in the trade that at that time the winemaker, Jed Steele, added a touch of residual sugar in the form of grape must.  Just maybe ½% or so, and the wine took off in sales. Even today we have 20 internet searches for “which wine is sweet” for every search  of “which wine is dry”.


      Grape juice has a certain level of sugar in it depending on the harvest, depending on where it is grown, depending on the individual varietal and so on.  A chardonnay grape grown in Chablis tends to be lower in sugar than the same grape grown slightly south of there, in say, Meursault which tends to be drier than the typical California chardonnay.  The reason, first and foremost for this, is the sunshine. The more sun there is the more sugar in the grapes.  It is as simple as that.  Now that doesn’t mean that the Californian winemaker has to just accept his or her fate and vinify accordingly.  For example, they might not leave the grapes on the vine until maturity but then they have to deal with the issues of higher acidity and so on. They might decide, on the other hand, to harvest at maturity and use a centrifuge on the wine but then you raise other issues and are well on the way to creating a Frankenstein monster of interrelated problems.   In any event, sugar left behind at the end of the wine making process is referred to as residual sugar.  Sometimes the winemaker makes the perfect choice and strikes a perfect balance and sometimes … well. Sometimes it might not even be their fault.  Grapes are an agricultural product and sometimes the winemaker is at the mercy of nature.  Maybe it rained a lot, or then again maybe it didn’t rain enough.

      

      Going back to my retail experiences, I created something called a “White Wine Sweetness Guide” to make it easy for the consumer to negotiate the myriad of choices in the store.  I printed copies on my dot matrix printer and posted them around the store.  Remember when I entered the trade all those years ago, French wines by far were the dominant wines.  The entry level wines for the average beginning wine drinker were rather sweet wines called American “Chablis” or German Liebfraumilch.  Since that time,  New World Wines have become much more of a presence further complicating the issue. 

     

Today there are New World wines crowding out the Old World wines.   There is definitely the sweetness difference between the two which is less pronounced the more expensive the wine. In other words, the more you go below $15, on the whole, the greater the differences.   What I hope to do here is benchmark the varietals into Old World styles versus New World styles. That way when you see where you are presently drinking, you will have the ability to go up or down the scale to experiment further. You can refer to my website for a discussion of sweetness and brix of the grapes. This is a whole other topic.


 French Champagne has it on the label! 

 French Champagne has the issue down pat.  They class the wines on a sweetness scale: as soon as you look at the label, you know how sweet it is.   For clarity, I am going to express the numbers as percent of total volume.


  • Brut Nature  0% -.2%

  • Extra Brut  .2%-.6%   (in the US, usually marketed as part of Brut)

  • Brut  .6%-1.2%   

  • Extra Dry 1.2%-1.7%

  • Sec (Dry)  1.7%-3.2%

  • Demi-sec  3.2%-5%

  • Doux over 5%


     OK, most of us cannot afford Champagne as a daily choice and some have wider tastes than one beverage. So what should we do when we get beyond the Champagne aisles. Don’t panic if you don’t have someone at the store who you implicitly trust to steer you in the right direction, lean on my 35 years of experience. Most wine managers in retail stores are not that experienced.  Unfortunately, as you grow in experience in wine, eventually you are hired away by a wholesaler or by a supplier for a bigger salary and opportunities.  The stores that tend to have experience are the smaller retailers/owners but they don’t tend to have the selection or price. 


 For other wines , it is generally accepted that the following amounts of residual sugar deserve the designation of  dry to sweet:


 Dry     up to 4 g/l or .4%             

        Medium dry     up to 12 g/l or 1.2%       

       Medium      up to 45 g/ or 4.5%                

     Sweet      more than 45 g/l or 4.5%

        



So where do you find such information on the label?  The answer is generally you don’t.  Without this being a requirement on the label, particularly the New World, tends to allow the winemaker a little license to be just a little more creative. Appellation (locality) rules are stricter and more localized in the Old World, so you will tend to get a  little guidance by knowing those wines like muscadet (very dry) and sauternes (very sweet).  Both are French and usually both need specialized knowledge to buy them. Variation in wine making practices are a little more controlled.  To make matters worse, how much sweetness your palate picks up is also determined by the level of acidity in the wine and other factors.  

     This is where my sweetness guide comes into the picture.  I have sampled wines from all over the world but it still is based on generalizations. I have tasted pretty much everything in various stages of development from raw juice to finished wine, from wine just bottled to wine that is too old or heated to sell even as a close out.  I have made wine giving me further insights as to how a wine is broken down.  I have sold wine and managed the stocks of wine.  You can lose a lot of money if you don’t know what you are doing.  This is why I want you to be as knowledgeable as possible before you walk into that store.   


 If you already have an  idea of what the wine you are looking at tastes like, go for it! This chart is for those situations where you are in the dark or your wine guru is not there… even wine guys need to take time off.     The scale is based on 1-10 where the higher you go, the sweeter the wine.  Wines are arranged with less body (mouth feel) at the top like riesling to more body like gewurztraminer at the bottom.  Obvious wines like sauternes to achieve the appellation or demi-sec vouvray indirectly put it on the label in that you have to make it sweet or it does not get the appellation. This chart is not for that sort of specific situation.  




Rick's White Wine Sweetness Guide







White Wine Varietal

Old World under $15

Old World over $15

New World under $15

New World over $15

Riesling

4

3

5

4

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio

4

3

5

4

Sauvignon Blanc/Fume Blanc

4

3

5

3

Chardonnay

3

2

4

3

Semillon

4

3

5

3

Chenin Blanc

5

4

6

4

Viognier

4

3

5

4

Gewuztraminer

4

3

5

3

Moscato

8

8

9

8


     These are some of the more popular grape varieties aka varietals.   This is a blog post so I am trying to be brief.  You have also to keep in mind that the Old World does not on the whole list the varietal name on the front label but the appellation (place where the wine comes from) instead and that is more a determining factor in how the wine is made.  You have to know a little about wine to understand that white Burgundy, particularly over $15 a bottle, is chardonnay or Sancerre is sauvignon blanc.  Sounds like a breakdown of appellations would make a good future blog post?  I know, wine is more complicated than we like  … would that the wine aisles were like the ice cream aisle which everyone, even your kids, understands?  You also are probably much less puzzled in the ice cream aisle than in the wine aisles? But there is also the idea that everything worth doing is more complicated than those that are not?  I mean, when I worked for a wine wholesaler, we were trying to get our individual wine items that we represented down to 10,000 items.  If we had been an ice cream wholesaler, we would be talking in the scores, not thousands.  In fact, one of my summer jobs as a kid in college was working in an ice cream factory making novelty ice creams.  I later worked summers in a candy factory; America"s sweet tooth sent me to college. (I know, I seem to have these jobs where you are done for if you give into temptation but I digress).

     

     When I worked in Bordeaux, the region was home to 5,000 individual chateaux, 10,000 labels and 26,000 grape growers.  This is one region in France and France is one country in the world.  There are over 10,000 wine grape varieties in the world.  No one knows it all.  No one can know it all. I probably know 5% or less of what there is to know.  So when you enter that store, hold your head up high.  You are not as lacking as you think because only you know what you like and now you have the beginnings of a map to travel through this labyrinth we call wine.

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