It seems like wines are either "sweet" or "dry." Does "dry" mean that they are sour or bitter?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

It seems like wines are either "sweet" or "dry." Does "dry" mean that they are going to be sour or bitter?

—Barbara, Saint Helen, Mich.

Dear Barbara,

Not at all! The term “sweet” can be confusing when it comes to wine. It’s not like a wine is either sweet or sour or bitter—a wine can have all of these elements, and the really good wines will be balanced among a multitude of variables.

Before I explain how sweetness in wine works, I’d like to back up and remind everyone that during the process of fermentation, the sugar in the grapes is converted to alcohol. It’s not unusual for a little bit of sugar to be left when fermentation is over—we call that residual sugar, or "R.S."

How many grams per liter of sugar is left over has a technical meaning to winemakers: Any wine with less than 10 grams per liter left is technically considered “dry.” More than 30 grams is considered “sweet” and wines in between are considered “off-dry.”

But even these measurements don’t tell the full story—how a wine’s residual sugar is balanced among the other elements will determine how sweet it actually tastes. If it’s big, bold, and full of details, the sugar might not show through as well as on a lighter body wine, with a simpler profile. Sure, the more residual sugar a wine has, the less likely you’ll encounter sour or bitter notes, but there is a whole range of wines in between the sweetest and the driest wines in the world—even wines at the ends of the spectrum are made in different styles that will influence how the sugar comes across.

Add to that, our own perception of sweetness isn’t measured in grams per liter, and what might taste sickly sweet to me might seem perfectly fine to someone else, no matter what the number of grams per liter. A wine might seem to taste sweet but it is technically dry—that definitely happens. Which also confuses matters, because there is a stigma that cheap wines taste "sweet" and that people who like them are unsophisticated.

I have friends that swear they don’t like sweet wines, when I’m pretty sure they like wines in the “off-dry” range. Keep in mind other winemaking elements as well, like influences from oak barrels that can give off a caramel or cream soda note, but don’t actually add any additional sugar. They further complicate the sweetness conversation.

Because of everything I’ve just explained, I tend to avoid talking about sweetness in wine unless I’m talking to a winemaker and I know we’re discussing residual sugar. Instead, I like to describe the flavors and the way the elements work together, or if there are fruit flavors, to focus on how ripe they are, or how distinctive they come across. Some wines remind me of biting into a perfectly ripe peach or tart Granny Smith apple. Even lemon flavors can have varying levels of ripeness to me—lemon sherbet is different from lemon meringue pie, candied lemon peel, or lemon pith. Each of these descriptors conjures up reference points for sweetness (and tartness and bitterness) at varying levels.

—Dr. Vinny

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