Wine terms: Sweet vs. fruity

sweet vs. fruityThis is one of the most perplexing differences to many wine drinkers, experienced or not. They ?ll confuse wine that is fruity, like sauvignon blanc or vigonier, with wine that is sweet, like riesling. In fact, there is a significant difference.

A dry wine, very simply, is a wine that isn ?t sweet ? nothing more complicated than that. Most of the wine sold in the U.S., save for white zinfandel, is dry, and that holds true whether it ?s red or white.

So why the confusion? Because most people associate dry wine with red wine, and with the tannins in red wine. The tannins are the stuff that causes the astringent, unpleasant flavor that makes your mouth pucker. It ?s one reason why so many people say they don ?t like red wine, though tannins don ?t have to be unpleasant and are actually a key part of well-made wine.

But tannins have very little to do with how dry the wine is. Dryness is the absence of sweetness, not the presence of tannins. A wine can be tannic and sweet, like poorly-made port. And white wines, which usually don ?t have any tannins, can be just as dry as red wines.

The other area of confusion revolves around the fruit flavors in wine. We ?re so accustomed to equating fruitiness with sweetness, like in jams and pies, that when we smell or taste a fruit flavor, we assume that it ?s sweet — even when it isn ?t. Case in point is a typical $10 California merlot, which is just bursting with ripe, mouth-filling blueberry flavor. But it doesn ?t have any measurable level of sugar, and is a bone dry wine.

How to explain the difference? Consider a glass of plain iced tea. That ?s dry, since it isn ?t sweet. Add lemon juice to the tea, and it becomes fruity, but dry. Now add sugar to the iced tea, and it becomes fruity and sweet tea. The principle is the same with wine.

One way to quickly tell whether a wine is sweet is the alcohol content. During the wine making process, the sugar in the grape juice is converted to alcohol. This means that the higher the alcohol, the drier the wine. Low alcohol, usually less than 12 percents, usually produces a sweeter wine.

11 thoughts on “Wine terms: Sweet vs. fruity

  • By Adnohram -

    This was the best explanation I’ve ever read. It cleared up my confusion. Thank you!!!

  • By Jeff Siegel -

    My pleasure. That’s what I’m here for.

  • By Jonathan -

    I honestly don’t understand the difference described in this post. I think everyone would agree that an apple is undeniably “fruity” (duh). But apples are FULL of measurable amounts of sugar. So the “fruity” flavor of an apple IS, in fact, sweet. So how can you separate sweetness from fruitiness? Yes, in apple pie, there is lots of added sugar to make it super sweet, but the apples have sugar in them too! So do blueberries!

  • By Jeff Siegel -

    Sorry if the post wasn’t clear, Jonathan. Hate to confuse visitors here.
    Chardonnay has an apple fruit flavor, but it’s not sweet. Most of the sugar has been converted to alcohol. But when we drink chardonnay and taste apples, our brain tells us that the wine is sweet because we equate apple flavor with sweetness from having eaten apples.
    Hope that makes it more clear. Let me know if you have any other thoughts on the subject.

  • By Jonathan -

    I completely understand the difference between “sweet” wine–wine with a measurable amount of residual sugar in it–and dry wine. But I still don’t understand sweet vs. fruity. Apples ARE sweet–they have sugar in them. So how can you possibly separate “apple flavor” from “sweet?” They are one and the same. The flavor you taste in apples is due, in part, to the sugar you taste. So how can you taste that same flavor in wine but not taste sugar?

  • By shane -

    Becouse the fruit is converted to alcohol taking the sweetness away. The reason you think its sweet is becouse your mind already associates apples to be sweet. Its just a mind game.

  • By Sophia Johnson -

    Thank you for your explanation of fruity versus sweet which cleared it up for me.
    Jeff Siegel,
    I understand where you are coming from but green apples are sour 🙂

  • By Jeff Siegel -

    My pleasure, Sophia. Glad tohelp.

  • By YossiD -

    Here in Israel there has been a trend towards fruitier wines over the past several years. Personally I sometimes find such fruit forward wines to be a bit overpowering, with the more subtle nuances of the wines getting lost.
    Since I have tasted wines of the same vintage, varieties, and terroir, with similar alcohol content, having a very broad range of fruitiness, I’m guessing that the winemaker has a degree of control over this. Can you tell me what the winemaker can do to make a wine more or less fruity? Does it have to do with fermentation temperature, the strain of yeast, malolactic fermentation, barrel type/age, black magic?

  • By Babe Brandt -

    Is Carlo Rosse Sweet Red Wine actually sweet from addatives or are the red grapes it’s made from just plain sweet on their own?

    • By Wine Curmudgeon -

      It probably has sweet grape juice added to the fermented wine to give it its sweetness. It’s not allowed to add sugar to the fermented wine in California.

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