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What is: a Sweet Wine?

If you have been working in a restaurant or a wine bar, or if you spend a lot of time in one of them (not judging you…), you would have heard a lot of people saying that they “love their sweet wines”. In fact, a very small percentage of the wines are sweet, and often labelled as “dessert wines”. So where does this confusion come from?

Glass of Sugar

Our Taste Buds

We have already been through this in our Grape Tasting tutorial, but the tip of your tongue is the first area to react to sweetness. If you grab some water, a scale and some icing sugar, we can make a pretty simple experience.

Most wines on the market are dry, as in not sweet, and they usually contain somewhere between 2 and 6 grams of residual sugar per litre (“residual sugar” or RS is the sugar that’s left into the wine after fermentation, the rest of it has become alcohol). If you try and dissolve a teaspoon (roughly 5 or 6 grams) of sugar into a litre of water and then drink some, it won’t taste too sweet.

In general, above 9 grams of residual sugar per litre, our taste buds start feeling a little sweetness. These wines are called “off-dry”.

Then from just under 20 g/l to about 50 g/l, we consider these wines to be either medium-dry or semi-sweet (“is the glass half full or half empty?” sort of thing).

Dessert wines, the luscious sweet styles of wine, contain anything over 50g/l of Residual Sugar, with some of them (Pedro Ximenez, Sauternes, Tokaji Aszu…) containing nearly 500 g/l…

On your tongue, the main difference between all of these is the way the tip reacts. The tip of your tongue waters when it encounters sugar, so a good way to remember it is:

  • If the tip of your tongue is WET, then the wine is SWEET

  • If the tip of your tongue is DRY, then the wine is DRY (as in not sweet)

If it’s that easy, then why are so many people getting confused? Here are a couple of reasons.

The Acidity

For those of you who cook, you probably know that a dash of lemon juice can lower the perception of sweetness or if you take it the other way around, too much vinegar can be hidden by a spoonful of sugar.

Acidity & sweetness work in balance, so that more of one will hide the other. The reason is pretty simple and again it comes down to our tongue. Acidity makes the sides of your tongue water while sweetness receptors are located on the tip of it. If the sides of your tongue water more, then it feels like the tip, in comparison, is watering a little less.

Being the key to most sodas and soft drinks, that balance is also found in white wines from Germany, Austria or the Alsace region of France. If you have tried some of their Rieslings or Gewurztraminers, they sometimes have a lovely richer mouthfeel that is down to the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, without feeling like they are neither sweet nor acidic. Now that’s the winemaker’s alchemy!

The Fruitiness/Honeyed Aroma

Some wines contain bucket loads of fruity aromas, and when they come from hotter climates, these aromas can taste like very ripe fruits. Some aromatic grapes are better than others to produce this result (Chardonnay, Muscat, Riesling, Albarino…). It is so good that when you drink them, your brain is tricked into thinking “if the fruit character is so ripe, then the wine must be sweet”. But it’s not, and most New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc are here to prove that point!

Some other grapes, like Viognier for instance, display notes of honey but without the sweetness, again tricking us into classifying them as sweet wines! These aromas work wonderfully well with Asian foods and some spicy Oriental dishes.

The Conclusion

If you are watching your sugar levels or think that you are “already sweet enough”, no panic! Ask for fruity wines (Hot climate chardonnay, New World Sauvignon Blanc…) or wines made of Viognier… they will often have a low sugar content but all the aromas you love!

If you want to enjoy a dessert wine though, remember that they are very high in sugar content. Most people think that a dessert wine is to be paired with a dessert when really, IT IS the dessert. Prefer less sweet/high acid desserts like a lemon tart or an apple crumble, or even savoury dishes like Foie Gras or Liver Pâté (traditional with Sauternes) or even Asian sweet & sour dishes. Now sugar, time for some wine, isn’t it?


Certified Sommelier (CMS)

Made by So' & Max

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