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Dry, Sweet, Sugar and Aroma Explained

The most confusing topic in wine has to be sugar in wine versus the term “dry” when describing white wine and even red-believe it or not. When I ask people what kind of wine they drink and they respond “a dry white” and then I follow up with the question of “oh really, what’s your go-to bottle?” because the “dry white” really gives me no actual clue what they like. Other times, I will get the “ I don’t like chardonnay because it’s too sweet”. Sugar and sweet versus dry and aromas are very different things when it comes to wine. And, I think the LCBO muddied the waters with this concept years ago by having the “0” “1” or “2” scale when it came to describing how dry a wine is (this scale has since been removed, but the effects linger). So let’s set the record straight and explain how all of these terms work together to describe wine.

Sugar in Wine

Getting back to the basics of how wine is made, it starts out as a grape, which is most basically made up of sugar and water (and of course, seeds and skin). This sugar is converted to alcohol through a chemical process when yeast is added to the grapes. Depending on what kind of wine is being made, sometimes the chemical process is stopped, to leave some residual sugar in the wine; it’s often stylistic, but also paramount to creating balance with acidity in wine. Other times, sugar is added to wines after they are made to find this balance.

Bottom line, almost all wine has sugar in it; so asking me for a wine recommendation with no sugar is very difficult. Even red wine has some sugar in it usually. Some have much less sugar than others- think about where your wine is from, a good rule of thumb, the hotter the climate and longer the growing season is, the greater chance there is more residual sugar in the wine, this is because only so much sugar can be converted to alcohol. So, all you California and Australia wine drinkers- expect more sugar, then a red wine from Italy or France (there are of course always exceptions to every rule of thumb).

When it comes to white wine a similar rule of thumb applies, the warmer the climate, and longer the growing season, the more likely there is more residual sugar left in the wine, but white wine has more sugar left in it for style and acid balance.

For sparkling wine, the sugar idea is even more complex- especially for champagne, as sugar is often added (the process is called dosage) after the champagne has gone through the second fermentation to get the taste and style desired by the winemaker. But what is most confusing is that sparkling wine and champagne is often termed “dry” and tastes “dry” but has about 7-16 grams/litre of sugar in it (depending on the type of sparkling and where it is made, every country has different rules).

...which leads us to the term “dry”

This is probably the term most widely used term by people when describing their preferences when it comes to wine. It is really a pet peeve of mine because it can make my job so much more difficult when recommending a wine to someone. Its subjective, and many confuse “dry” with the taste on the palate of ripe fruit and/or oak.

First, when you smell a wine, you cannot determine if it is sweet. If you smell a glass, and your instinct is to say its sweet- you need to replace the term “sweet” with “aromatic”. If you can smell ripe fruit, that is to do with wine style and nothing to do with sugar; some people prefer less aromatic wine, where lemon, citrus and perhaps a faint floral aroma is present. Other people prefer wine that is more aromatic, ripe jammy peaches, lychee fruit, melon, herbs, and/or white honeysuckle flowers. These are all things that don’t determine whether a wine is “dry” or has sugar in it. The secondary smells you might find in white wine are vanilla, butter, cream or baking spices, which are what determine oak aging.

On the palate, marketers and winemakers can, still define wine that has residual sugar in it, as “dry” wine. So, that white wine you are drinking may or may not have sugar in it.

Below are the 4 most common white wine varietals North Americans drink, all of them can be made in “dry” styles, and all of them have some sugar in them.

4 Most Common White Wines

When describing what kind of wine you like to drink, try to focus on flavours and grape varietal, this greatly changes the conversation. As you can see from the chart above, if you ask me, or anyone working at the LCBO for a dry, white wine recommendation, they could literally offer you most any white grape varietal made into wine. A good way to ask for a recommendation, ask for a wine to pair with a specific food you are making.

Remember to try new wines, and a great way to venture from your go-to bottle, is to try the same grape varietal made in the same region by a different producer- chances are they will be very similar. If you want to get adventurous, try the same grape varietal from a different country or region. Get out of your comfort zone! Whatever you do, don’t use the term “dry” to explain the type of wine you like, because it isn’t going to get you any closer to your wine of choice.

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