Thursday, February 2, 2023

Understanding Wine Sweetness

For years, wine buyers have taken a wine from a store shelf and wondered if it's dry, or sweet?  The question is especially important with white wines like Riesling.

Germans have been trying for decades to dispel the myth that all German wine is sweet. Of course, it isn't true, as one taste of a Riesling trocken can shock your palate into numbness.  

Still, many German white wines are semi-sweet, sweet and dessert-wine sweet. German wines are hard to sort out, which is ironic since the Germans have a reputation for orderliness and organization. 

Before we get to specific sweetness scales, here are some terms to help better understand the basics of German wines: Trocken is dry; Halbtrocken means half dry or off dry; Kabinett is perceptibly sweet; Spatlese is sweet; Auslese is honied/sweet; Beerenauslese (Ba) means sweet/honeyed/complex and Trockenbeerenauslese, commonly referred to as "Tba," is Germany's rare and most complex sweet wine.  Eiswein, or Ice Wine, is a special category that fits between Ba and Tba and is made from grapes frozen on the vine.

The Sweetness Scales

In 2007, a group of Riesling producers created the International Riesling Foundation (IRF). In designing a scale to be placed on the back label of a Riesling wine label, the IRF hoped to answer the question once and for all: "How sweet is this wine?"

Using an arrow to point to one of four terms -- Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, Sweet -- a Riesling producer tells the consumer what he or she believes to be the sweetness level of wine.      


Eventually, global Riesling producers adopted the scale, but ironically, few German Riesling producers went along, citing one reason or another why they wouldn't participate.

In Alsace, the French wine region, across the Rhine river from Germany, the Association of Alsace Wine Growers was faced with the same sweetness question as their German neighbors, so they devised their own sweetness scale to indicate to consumers the level of sweetness of an Alsace wine.  

The Alsace sweetness scale looks similar to the IRF Sweetness Scale, but the four terms are different: sec (dry), demi-sec (off-dry), moelleux (med-sweet) and doux (sweet).   Alsace producers could either show the appropriate term on the back label or use a scale with an arrow pointing to the word.

Online site, Wine Folly, has its own sweetness scales. There's a scale for white wine and one for red wine, using claimed residual sugars from winery tech sheets.  The Wine Folly red scale, for instance, suggests that Tempranillo is nearly dry, Syrah is beyond medium sweet and Zinfandel is sweet. On the Wine Folly white wine scale, Riesling is nearly sweet, while Sauvignon Blanc is nearly dry.

There are more wines on both Wine Folly scales, but the confusing scales present  a dilemma for consumers when what they need is transparent guidance and information.

The Usual Dilemma

Any information you give a wine consumer is helpful, right?  Not when a collection of sweetness scales, that aims to give the consumer helpful information about the wine in the bottle, is murky and confusing.  The problem, unfortunately, is repeated over and over again.

For example, how does the consumer define the difference between "demi-sec" and "medium dry?"  Are those terms the same?  Or, because one term is in French and the other English, is there a cultural language difference?

Granted, the first scale is on the back label of a bottle of Alsace (French) wine and the other on a bottle of Riesling.  Riesling is a primary wine in Alsace, so why a different scale for Alsace Riesling, when Alsatians could use the IRF scale?

Obviously, the answer is a sweetness scale is proprietary and political.  And there are political/trade differences between the two countries, made even more complex by EU requirements.

A closing personal note:  Reflecting on the sweetness of Riesling reminds me of a visit my copy editor (aka, my wife, Janet) and I made to a wein keller in the German Rheingau, that involved tasting a number of Rieslings and then the challenge of spitting. 

Vineyards overlooking Rudesheim

After being greeted by our genial host, we were led down a long flight of steep steps into a narrow cramped and cold cellar.  Explaining the careful arrangement of equipment and tanks in his small cellar, the vintner selected a small stainless tank that had been fabricated to fit into a niche, grabbed three glasses, opened the spigot and while holding the glasses in one hand, poured a measure of golden wine into each.  

Then the seriousness of the tasting lightened up a little, at Janet's expense. 

Tasting a line of wines at a tasting bench or table is not like tasting in a cellar. There's usually a bucket or spittoon at the table. A modern winery has shallow trenches in the floor for water runoff and the disposal of spit wine. In the cellar, spitting demands expectorant velocity and accuracy, even when there is no trench or drain.

Americans who did not grow up in the wine business likely never learned to spit, especially on the floor.  Sure, young boys tend to spit a lot, to the displeasure of adults. But girls never spit, so on that day in a Rheingau cellar, Janet was expected to become an instant spitter. 

Back at the car, Janet took a tissue from the her purse and wiped the wine from the toe of her shoe.  At other wineries on the trip, the wines got better, but unfortunately, Janet's aim didn't. 

Next blog: Barolo

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