Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sweet Wines - be Careful What You Ask For... You Just Might Get It!

I have never been a big fan of sweet drinks. Oh, I've polished off my share of sugary soda as a kid to provide fuel for hours of hyperactively playing Starsky and Hutch in the backyard, but I drink coffee and tea without any sweetener and club soda is my soda of choice these days.  I am probably more of a rarity than those who prefer sweet tea, a nice cold sweet soda, or multiple packets of sugar in their Starbucks.

I believe this preference for sweeter drinks leads many new wine drinkers to gravitate toward sweeter wines.  First off, there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking out the kind of wines that you like... that's the most important goal in becoming a wino.  However, I have learned from friends who asked me for recommendations for a sweet wine (ugg, I hate dry wines! they say), and who I have pointed toward wines to wines like late harvest Zinfandels, Petite Sirahs, or Viogniers that sugary sweet wines like these are not what they mean.  (Hey wino, I asked for sweet wine, not syrup!!!).

The important thing to remember is that there are two types of sweetness you can experience when drinking wine. The first is true sweetness from residual sugar in the wine, and the second is the perception of sweetness from intense fruit flavors.

So when is a wine really sweet? As an example,  let's take late harvest wines. Late harvest wines are just that... grapes that are left on the vine for weeks or months after harvest so that the grapes ripen and become even more packed with sugar. Some parts of the winemaking world leave the grapes on the vine to freeze, and make a sweet treat you may have seen referred to as "Ice Wine."  During the winemaking process for this type of wine, not all of the sugar is fermented into alcohol, so you are left with what is referred to as residual sugar.  Basically the higher level of residual sugar, the more sweet the wine will taste, but other factors of the wine such as tannin level and acidity level will counteract the sweetness to make the wine taste less sweet. 

The perception of sweetness from a wine with intense fruit flavors is all about the difference between taste and flavor.  Taste is experienced in the mouth (I know, and I don't even have a degree in biology!), and as humans we can only experience five tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory/umami.  Flavor is what we experience from the mixture of the five tastes, plus the aroma of what we are drinking or eating.  Adding the aromas allows us to experience hundreds and hundreds of different flavors.  Don't believe me?  You can experiment at home.  Take a drink of a wine that you like that you consider sweet... but plug your nostrils. Does the wine still taste sweet? If so then the wine has some residual sugar, but if it does not taste sweet... then what you are experiencing in the wine is the perception of sweetness from the fruit.

Many get turned off of "dry" wines because they may try either cheaper wines that may smell and taste too much like oak, or have that indescribable cheap white wine smell and taste.  Also, lovers of sweet drinks may be turned off by wines make in the "old world" style where fruit takes a back seat to other elements of the wine.  If you think you may be in this group, and have steered away from dry wines... you may like a nice fruity wine.  Try your local wine shop and ask them for something fruity or fruit forward (plus ready to drink) and you just never know how much you may love it! Don't be alarmed if you get pointed to Spanish or even French wines as some winemakers in traditionally old world wine regions make very new world fruity wines that are delicious and great values.

Most importantly, find what you like and enjoy it... even if it is a sugary sweet late harvest wine, a Port, a Madeira, or a Sauternes... they are wonderful members of the world of wine as well!

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