Thursday, December 9, 2010

"Sweet" and "Fruity": two misleading and misused words in the wine vocabulary of the everyday average wine consumers & Short Simplified Wine Lexicon

"Sweet" and "Fruity": two misleading and misused words
in the wine vocabulary of the everyday average wine consumers,
more especially when it comes to dry wines.

Is it a dry wine? It is not too fruity, I hope? Is it really fruity? I hope it is not too sweet? Is it sweet?

These justifiable, yet somewhat annoying, and recurring questions come back way too often, in my opinions, in wine stores or restaurants and other eateries, and I think it is time to kill a myth!

“Sweet” and especially “fruity” are two misleading and misused words in the wine vocabulary of the everyday average wine consumers, more especially when it comes to dry wines. Especially in the US market, where sugar is omnipresent everywhere in everything you can eat or drink.

Surely they are not the only one, but the American's palate is usually quite inclined to sweeter things. More especially when it comes to wine, due to, unfortunately, lack of good wine education and lack of real interest from the average consumers up until the beginning of last decade. Although, I must say, it is way much better now and I will develop further by saying that: the average New Yorker, drinking wines from all around the world, is surely more knowledgeable than the average French, who generally get some pride in drinking wines locally made in his or her region of origin, i.e.: a "Bordelais" usually drinks Bordeaux and rarely Burgundy, or someone from the Loire will rarely taste Rhone wines, and Vice Versa...).

The fault is also to be put on the fact that Americans have way too many occasions to encounter “White Zinfandel” and “Manischewitz” and other so called “flavored wines” and “jug wines”, which taste more like sugar products vaguely tasting like grape juice, rather than proper wines.

When wine amateurs, connoisseurs and professionals talk about sweet wines (whether white, rosé, red or sparkling) they usually refer to dessert wines or fortified wines or muted wines or naturally sweet wines, which underwent certain types of fermentation and vinification to achieve desired styles of sweet wine.

Some are very well-known like, just to name a few: Sauternes in Bordeaux, Monbazillac in Bergerac; Coteaux du Layon and Vouvray in the Loire; Muscat de Beaume de Venise in the Rhone; Banyuls, Muscat de Rivesalte and Maury in the Roussillon; Jurançon in the Southwest of France; Tokaji in Hungary; Port in Portugal; Sherry-Jerez in Spain; Muscato and Vin Santo in Italy; Muscat in Greece; and many more, etc..

Yet, it seems that every-time a consumer enter a wine store, (educated or not; or having minimum wine knowledge or not), if he or she asks if a wine is fruity or sweet, they often refer to sweetness in dry wines, thinking about sugar. Well it is a big misconception.

Sweet: usually means “with sugar”, yet in wine vocabulary it predominantly refers to ripeness. And ripeness mainly refers to the ripeness and opulence of the fruit aromas and flavors when you taste the wine. Ripeness often replace the word sweet, referencing about the natural sweetness of the wine because of the ripeness of the grapes at harvest time and the fruity sensation procured in the palate due to that ripeness, not because of the residual sugar in the wine once bottled. In fact, sweet is only used to characterize specifically certain wines, usually sweet wines for the reasons cited above.

And "Fruity" is also a misconception of sweetness. Any dry still or sparkling wines can be fruity without referencing the sweetness. Fruity in wine vocabulary refers to the fruit sensation in the palate often paired with juiciness, not the amount of sweetness that your taste buds may have sensed while tasting. For example, Sauvignon based wines are usually very dry; some can be very lemony, grassy and green with high acidity yet they remain fruity. High elevation wines that are crisp, refreshing, rather light and full of minerals can also be very dry, lean and acidic yet they are fruity. Meaning that you can still feel the sensation of fruit in the palate, even if minimal compared to riper, fuller wines.

By definition, except when desired for some, most wines are dry, because the fermentation process during the vinification is the action of the yeasts and other bacterias to transform the residual sugar of grape juice unto alcohol. Which means that sugar level during fermentation will diminish while alcohol level will increase, and hopefully in most cases, will stop naturally around the desired percentage of alcohol (11.5 to 14.5%+ depending of the wine, its area of origin, the rules of the appellation of origin and desired producer's style).

Although, lately, with the rising of the temperatures and climate changes, certain wines have higher alcohol content. Also certain regions started to produce wines where it will not have been possible 20-30 years ago. It is partly due to the evolution of techniques, but mainly to the adaptability of the Vitis Vinifera and other species of Vitis which can sustain the most extreme conditions (Terroir, soil, climate and temperature variations, etc...). And last but not least, it is also due to the daring human ambitions to continuously experience everything everywhere and the constant demand from the market to explore new frontiers and new flavors.

Therefore, unless obtained because of the producer’s desired style or the region’s ancestral traditions of sweet and/or fortified and/or muted and /or Naturally sweet wines (Sauternes, Tokaji, Ice Wine, Muscat, Porto, Banyuls, etc…); or even because a specific region’s climate, Terroir and appropriate grape varieties are commanding for a certain amount of natural residual sugar during and/or after fermentation; or because the appellation or area of production authorizes Chaptalization (which means the addition of sugar during fermentation to increase sugar content of the wine’s must to increase sweetness and alcohol level); or because, at last, the vintage was mediocre and a bit of sugar should enhance the fruit in the final product without altering it; most produced wines are dry, not "sweet" nor "fruity" (in the sense of sweet).

I will repeat it one more time to kill the myth and "obliviate" (see Harry Potter) this recurring misconception: Unless due to all the above conditions, traditions, styles and other ancestral methods, most of the wines produce in the world are dry, NOT sweet. And fruity, in most scenarios, and more especially in the wine language and lexicon used by most wine amateurs and connoisseurs, Sommeliers, Wine Buyers and other wine professionals, “fruity” doesn’t mean sweet. Proof is when you bite a lemon or even better, a lime: it is juicy and fruity (because it is a fruit), yet it is sour (but still, fruity and definitely not sweet).

Think about it next time your in a store. Whatever you may think and whether or not you agree with me after reading this post, my point does make sense: sweet and fruity are definitely two misleading and misused words in the wine vocabulary of the everyday average wine consumers, especially when it comes to dry wines (sweet refer to ripeness and fruity doesn't mean sweet).

Amongst the 195 (or 194 depending if you include Taiwan or not) countries that are in the world, 70+ of them produce some wines that are predominantly still and sparkling dry wines, only few of them produce mainly sweet wines.

These 70+ wine-producing countries are led by a pack of 20 countries that are the most productive and surely some of the most anciently established wine-producing countries. And most of them produce mainly dry wines, with a few sweet, except some countries of the eastern part of Europe, which do it more by traditions and appropriate climate and Terroir. But even that is changing. They are now producing more dry wines due to the demand of the world market.

Here is the list of the 70(+) wine-producing countries, for your own knowledge, by Alphabetical order (it is easier and will avoid conflicts). You probably known most of them but I’m sure that you might be surprised:

Albania, Algeria, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malta, Syria, Mexico, Moldova, Morocco, New Zealand, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Reunion Romania, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Tajikistan, The Netherlands, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, United kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Zimbabwe

As I say earlier, all these 70(+) wine producing countries produce more dry wines all together than sweet wines. Therefore, to kill the myth of the misleading and misused words “sweet” and “fruity” in wine, and rectify the meaning of certain words that you may have heard some many times by your local wine specialist, without really or fully understanding what he or she meant; here is my little lexicon of wine vocabulary and the meaning of some of these metaphorical words that can somewhat sound quite obscure without an explanation.

Short Simplified Wine Lexicon

  • Sweet: usually means “with sugar”, yet in wine vocabulary it predominantly refers to ripeness.
  • Ripeness: refers to the ripeness and opulence of the fruit aromas and flavors; it often replace the word sweet, referencing the natural sweetness of the wine because of the ripeness of the grapes at harvest time, not because of the residual sugar in the wine once bottled.
  • Fruity: doesn’t mean that the wine is necessarily sweet, in the sense of sugary. It may evoke the sweetness of the fruit flavor in the wine because of its ripeness, opulence and juiciness; but once again doesn’t mean that the wine is necessarily sweet, it just refers to a certain fruitiness and/or ripeness with more fruit present in the palate than acidity or tannins, common indicator of dryness.
  • Opulence: refers somewhat to the texture, but more precisely to the bold structure of a generous wine made from really ripe grapes or because the grape variety generate opulence (Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, Garnacha, Monastrell, etc…).
  • Refreshing: usually refers to great or higher acidity, within lighter white or red or rosé wines, sensation of freshness or brightness in the palate.
  • Acidity: puckering and sour if not properly focus and integrated with the fruit, it is still a very important element of the wine, which allows freshness, crispiness, brightness, vibrancy, delicateness, and focus of the wine, part important of the texture and the structure like the tannins. It allows for long age potential.
  • Tannins: green if unripe, they can be sour, green, bitter, tight and too present. Yet if integrated to the fruit and combined with the acidity, they enhance the wine, consolidate its texture and frame is structure. It allows for long age potential.
  • Disjointed: when all components, fruit, acid, tannins and other parts of the wine are not harmoniously intermingled together.

To be continued…. (it is too late now, I have to go to bed but I will complete and develop it soon, promises).


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  1. When I saw Belarus on the list, right away I jumped to P... but did not find Poland. So, I read once again the criteria and it says "produce more dry wines all together than sweet wines". Does it mean that Poland produces more sweet than dry wine or simply was overlooked (no offence taken, just curious ;)?

  2. No offense taken at all. I didn't mention it because Polish wines are not well-known at all and remain a great mystery for most wine buyers like me.

    I must say that during my 19 years of career in the wine industry, I don't remember even tasting one wine from Poland.

    I read a few things here and there but nothing extraordinary and couldn't even tell whether the wines produced there are rather sweet or dry, due to lack of information and tasting possibilities. But I will think that it is rather sweet and it is not a cultural drink like in western Europe countries like France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, etc...

    Moreover, the list of the 70+ countries producing wines (and I should have precised it), represents the countries that are the most open to the export market, with wines wildly available in major wine markets, like New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, Singapore, Shangai, Tokyo, Honk Kong, Brazil, India, Sweden, Norway, Canada, etc...

    As far as I know, even if some wineries have existed in Poland for centuries, Poland is more in fact a beer and vodka producing country rather than a wine producing country, with lot of great liquor and schnapps too, but poorly equipped in matter of wine.

    Regarding the little amount of wines produced there, it is somewhat insignificant and remain locally consumed, and even if some brands are just starting to appear on some markets, they are rather shy and not really marketed or promoted the way they should be in order to make an impression.

    I also read that the wine industry in Poland had a lot of ups and downs through out history, and nearly vanished by the end of the 80s, to finally be revamped in the mid-90s, but remain quite small and discreet.

    I also read that although it says Polish wine on certain labels, certain wines from Poland do not come from Poland but other vineyards from neighboring countries, which is often the case in other eastern European countries, like Georgia and Turkey for example. It's old school stuff and tradition dating back to when the European continent was divided into trading and growing rights, and this kind of practices were authorized.


    LeDom du Vin