Wine basics in three easy lessons, starting with dry vs. sweet


Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser has a new $89 DVD that promises to teach you everything he knows about wine—or at least as much of it as he can disseminate in 20 minutes. At $4.50 a minute, that’s a pretty penny.


Since I have yet to get my big break (“Swirling with the Stars”?), I’m going to spend the next three weeks covering wine basics—sugar, fruit, acidity, alcohol, and tannin—for the price of your favorite weekly newspaper. The goal? To make you confident and conversant enough to order and buy wines that you will consistently like. Knowing what you like is one thing, but knowing how to communicate it is another. School’s out for summer, but Wine 101 is now in session.

When I ran a wine bar, the most common request was for a “really dry” wine or one that “wasn’t too sweet.” Not a difficult request as the majority of wines made are dry, but since so few people know the technical meaning of dry and sweet, translating this request proved more difficult.

A wine is dry when the yeasts responsible for fermentation have converted all of the grapes’ sugars into alcohol. In red wines, the presence of tannin (stay tuned for Week 3) is often mistaken for dryness. The astringent sensation of tannin does indeed dry out the mouth, but the presence of tannin does not make a wine dry; rather, dry simply means the absence of sweetness.

A wine is sweet when fermentation has been intentionally stopped before all of its grapes’ sugars have been converted into alcohol. The earlier fermentation is halted, the sweeter the wine. What remains is called residual sugar and is measured in grams per liter (g/L).

A common mistake is to perceive a wine’s fruit as being sugar. Our brain thinks of fruit as sweet, so when we taste a dry wine that is fruity, we perceive it as sweet, even when there is no detectable residual sugar.

The best way to illustrate the difference between dry, fruity and sweet is with unsweetened tea. Taste it and notice that no sweetness is detected by the sweet receptors on the tip of your tongue. That’s dry. Tea contains tannins, though, so you will also notice the astringent sensation on the roof of your mouth. That’s tannic. Now, add a squeeze of lemon. Your brain will think “sweet” because of the presence of fruit, but the flavor hits your mid-palate, rather than the tip of your tongue. That’s fruity. Now, add sugar and notice how its sweetness registers with the taste buds on the tip of your tongue. That’s sweet.

Ready for wine? Try fruity wines, like Spanish Albarino, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, or California Merlot next to sweet wines, like Moscato d’Asti, Icewine, or a sweet German Riesling and compare how the first hit the fruit receptors on the middle of the tongue and the second hit the sweet receptors on the tip of the tongue.

Now, repeat: “Fruit is the perception of sweetness!” “A fruity wine is still a dry wine!” Stop yourself the next time you are tempted to describe a fruity wine as “too sweet.” If you really can’t stomach fruit in your wine, rather than asking for a drier wine, ask for something less fruity, or with more oak, more tannin, or more acidity, because remember, “It’s not sweet, it’s just fruity.”