What Is Sweet and What Is Dry?

01 March,2018
Doug Frost


How can something liquid be dry? The use of “dry” to describe a drink that isn’t sweet is a marketing innovation of sorts that dates back to Champagne in the 19th century.


But the NY Times recently reported that, “According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a five-ounce glass of red table wine typically contains about 0.9 grams of total sugar, while a glass of chardonnay contains about 1.4 grams. A sweet dessert wine, typically served in a smaller two- to three-ounce glass, contains as much as 7 grams of sugar. Depending on where the wine was made, the total may include added sugar or sugar from unfermented grape juice, along with the sugar that occurs naturally in the grapes.” This is not particularly helpful since an average statement in wine is about as insightful as saying baseball players hit an average of 8 homers a year, when the question is: how many homers do MY favorite players hit?


For Kansas Citians this year, not enough, but that’s a matter for a different area of the paper. When it comes to most red wines, the USDA is pretty close to it, with most good red wines having closer to one quarter that amount.  With whites, it’s even lower.  But in both cases, it depends upon what you’re drinking. The last five years have seen a meteoric rise in slyly sweetened wines, whether red or white, with some having two grams of sugar or more per glass. If you’re a Moscato fan, that can ramp up to eight or nine grams, with the good news being that Moscatos that sweet often have only half the alcohol of standard table wine.


But from a marketing standpoint, the folks selling wines with those sugar levels ar   e not just sly, they’re even a bit deceitful. Take Apothic Red: it’s marketed as “smooth” and “velvety” but nowhere on the bottle, on the website or on any of the winery’s packaging will the word “sweet” appear. Why not? Do they not trust us or is it that “sweet” wine still has an unfair rap as something cheap, when some of the world’s greatest wines are sweet?


The progenitors of all this silliness were brands like Glen Ellen and, most notably, Kendall Jackson (KJ) with their Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. Upon release in the 1980s, it was noticeably sweet; many of us guessed that it had almost twenty grams of sugar per glass. We guessed at it because KJ wasn’t talking, and their success speaks volumes as to consumer preference. “We talk dry and drink sweet”, so the wine saying goes. And KJ has “dried” out their wine since the early days, so the sugar in that wine has considerably lessened. Plenty of other wineries have joined them; Rombauer is another success story of marketing through omission.


None of this is criticism of anyone’s taste. I drink sweet wines quite enthusiastically, I’m happy to admit. And if you like them as well, you should do so too.


Image credit: Austrian Wine