Sugar is by far the most misunderstood component of wine. There’s a common belief that sweet wine is bad, and people pride themselves on appreciating dry wine. (Whenever I ask someone what kind of wine they like, 7 times out of 10 the first adjective they use is “dry.”) The truth is, sweetness in wine isn’t always a bad thing, and sometimes can be a very, very nice thing indeed.
Quick chemistry lesson review: the sugar in grapes is the precursor of alcohol in the finished wine. So a very simplified equation for fermentation would be sugar + yeast = alcohol + carbon dioxide. The riper the grapes, the more sugar you have, and the higher alcohol wine you end up with. This explains why big reds from hot regions in Australia, Spain, or California, for example, have higher higher alcohol levels than wines from France’s Loire Valley, Germany, or our very own Long Island. In some cases, producers making a “dry red wine” will actually leave a little sugar in there. That makes the wine softer, rounder, and easier to appreciate, particularly for the American sweet tooth. (No judgement: I’m eating a bowl of brown sugar ice cream as I write this.)
The truth is, many people like slightly sweet wine, and that’s OK. They go down easy, and sugar adds a seductive, luscious quality to many wines that’s hard to resist. Sugar helps to balance out high acidity (think of making a glass of lemonade), an equation that works well in sweet German whites. Sugar also helps to mask flaws, distracting from excessive levels of tannin, for example.
Often in my classes I find that when people say they like dry wine, especially when they’re talking about whites, they mean they don’t like very aromatic wines that smell like sweet things (pineapple, honey, and the like) but are actually dry. It’s no knock against them — it took me a while to figure this out, too. When you bring a glass of Alsatian Riesling or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to your nose, the smells can be overpowering: kiwi, lychee, passion fruit, nectarines, candied lemon peel … all things that we know from experience taste deliciously sweet. We assume then that the wine itself is going to taste sugary, even if that’s not the case. Remember, you can’t really smell sweet: stick your nose in your box of Domino sugar if you don’t believe me. Sweetness is something we taste, so the proof is on your tongue. You can have wines that smell like a perfectly ripe peach but are actually dry (e.g., Albariño from northern Spain) or wines that smell like lemon and minerals and are perceptibly sweet on the palate (some German Rieslings). When evaluating the sweetness of a wine, and deciding what you do and don’t like, it’s important to think about what you’re smelling vs. what you’re tasting.
I’m a big fan of sweet wines. German Rieslings, Port, sweet Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, Banyuls, a dark and luscious wine from the Roussillon in Southern France near the Spanish border, syrupy Pedro Ximenez sherry…in my dream cellar, I’d have a case or two of each. Aside from the Pedro Ximenez, which makes an incredible topping for vanilla or coffee ice cream, I usually prefer them on their own. Unless you’ve perfectly matched the sweetness levels, either the wine or the dessert ends up overshadowing the other.