Norton Safeweb

Monday, April 4, 2011

Perceived sweetness in wine

Americans have a sweet tooth.  Is this bad?  We love Coke.  We like sweet wines, but this doesn't mean we're necessarily getting sugar in our wines.   Maybe I shouldn't say we like sweet wines, but that we prefer a sweet sensation over a bitter or acidic one.

There are several characteristics in a wine that can be picked up by your nose or your taste buds as sweet.

1.  Sugar.  Residual sugar (R.S.) left in wine when all sugars are not fermented into alcohol.  Sometimes R.S. is left in a wine because it's a dessert wine.  Sometimes it's done to soften a wine and make it easier drinking.  The threshold for picking up a sugar sweetness is wine is supposed to be over one-half of a percent R.S. left in a wine.  The classic wine in this style is the Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay.  It's left a bit sweet on purpose, people love it, but KJ won't admit to the R.S. because table wines aren't supposed to be sweet according to some expert or another.

2. Fruit-forwardness.  Wines where fruity flavors are prominent may seem sweet because we expect fruits to be sweet.  If you're picking up red cherry or strawberry flavors or smells in a wine it seems as a sweetness because we all know these red fruits are sweet. (OK, except for sour cherries).

3. Alcohol.  This shouldn't be discernible in a beverage unless it's overdone or unless you're having, let's say, a straight shot of vodka.  Unfortunately, some wines show alcohol as heat in the finish (the aftertaste) if it's really overdone, but alcohol can also show as sweetness.  For example, this is why 16% alcohol Zinfandels seem to taste sweet.

4. Oak.  "Sweet oak" is a descriptor you find in some wine descriptions.  Oak can impart flavors like coconut and vanilla and give an overall sensation of sweetness.

5. Low acids.   Wines, like any fruit, have naturally occurring acids.  If the acids are too low the wine may come across as sweet just because there's no balance of acids and sugars.  Think of Red Delicious apples vs. Granny Smiths (sweet vs. tart).

Wine people will usually say sugar left in wine is bad if you are making a table wine to be used with a meal.  Or if you are making a "serious" wine (other than those meant for dessert).    But if fruity, alcoholic, or oaky wines can seem sweet should this also be bad?   Doesn't seem so as people buy fruity, high alcohol, oaky, low acid wines all the time.   But you're not supposed to buy a dinner wine with residual sugar?

It shouldn't really matter how the perceived sweetness got there.  Sweet is sweet to your taste buds so if these other sweet sensations are OK then so should a bit of R.S.   There's a dirty little secret in the wine biz as there are wineries leaving sugar in wines on purpose, but they won't admit it because it's "wrong."   While visiting a small northern Sonoma County winery the owner/winemaker said he left some R.S. in his Sauvignon Blanc.  First thing I thought of to say was, "Thanks for admitting that!"   He was probably do that to balance out the high acids of Sauv Blanc. 

And balance is what it's all about.