Forgive the hyperbolic title here, people, but really, what I’m about to say merits it. If there is one fundamental piece of wine knowledge that eludes many wine drinkers, it is this: SWEET AND FRUITY ARE NOT THE SAME THING.
Did you hear that? SWEET DOES NOT EQUAL FRUITY.
Sweet means that there is a perceptible amount of residual sugar in the wine. Sweetness is something that you taste. Remember in elementary school when you learned how your taste buds register sweet, salty, sour and bitter? (And now, we’ve discovered, umami?) You register sweetness on your tongue.
Fruity means that the wine has strong aromas of fruit. Fruity is about how the wine smells. Remember also in elementary school when you held your nose so you could eat a particularly offending bite of brussel sprouts without gagging? Your nose is much, much more perceptive than your tongue, and most of our “tasting” actually happens with our nose.
Why is this important? Because often when people say they want a “dry” wine, they actually mean they want a wine that is not too fruity. There they are, telling the sommelier or store clerk that they prefer “dry” wine, thinking they’re being helpful, while in fact they’re being the opposite of helpful (to paraphrase Shrek.) There are plenty of wines that are dry, but quite fruity — some Beaujolais and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc — and are likely to disappoint the “I’m saying dry but what I really mean is fruity” crowd. Sweet vs. fruity has got to be the leading cause of wine disillusionment and confusion for the casual drinker. (And not-so-casual. I’ve been to more than one tasting where serious wine peeps have gotten tripped up on this.)
Consumers and wine professionals alike need to take action. Here’s what I recommend:
If you are a consumer, the next time you get a glass of wine that seems “sweet” to you, take a deep whiff. Are you smelling lots of stuff you associate with “sweet” — tropical fruit, peaches, raspberries, honeysuckle, etc? Is that what’s bumming you out? Then plug your nose and take a sip. Does the wine still seem sweet to you? And if so, is that the problem? If it’s the aromas that are bothering you, then, well, you may not like intensely fruity wine. And if the sweetness bothers you, then OK, perhaps you’re sensitive to sugar and really do need for your wines to be bone dry. But keep in mind that even if this is the case, the vast majority of bottles in any store or on any wine list are dry. (With some obvious exceptions: dessert and fortified wines, most notably.)*
And if you are a wine professional, (nicely) interrogate your customer. Ask for examples of dry/sweet wines they have and haven’t liked. Last week I saw a fresh-out-of-college wine clerk at my local liquor store do this very well, helping a woman transition from cheap Moscato to a nice Sauvignon Blanc. Turns out she loved the fruitiness of Moscato but hated the sweetness of it. This is not brain surgery, and it’s not particularly sexy — but it’s the most important piece of wine guidance you’ll ever give.
*(Sidebar: if a wine is sweet, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. There are many great, sweet wines in the world. Liking sweet wine doesn’t mean you’re a moron. Check out this recent glowing review that Jancis Robinson gave a Gallo Moscato!)