Vino 101: What makes a wine taste sweet?

There’s a perception that people who like sweet wines are somehow lesser beings than those who like their wines bone dry. Chicas y chicos, Señorita Vino thinks this notion is a bunch of estiércol (That’s polite español for B.S., and we’re not talking about the B.S. for which you paid exorbitant tuition).

Pairing tip: Your wine should be sweeter than your dessert.

If you like your wine sweet, you’re still a rock star in Señorita Vino’s world. And because you rock, I am about to arm you with a very basic, easy-to-digest explanation of what makes some wines taste sweet.

First, a quick primer on the terms we use to describe the sweet (or not sweet) taste of wine. From least sweet to sweetest, a wine is either dry, medium dry, medium (sometimes called medium-sweet), or sweet. En español, the terms are seco, semiseco, semidulce, and dulce. There are standards to determine which category a wine falls into, but we won’t get into that today.

Dessert wines are known as ‘stickies’ in Australia.

Wine can taste sweet for a variety of reasons including alcohol and winemaking techniques, but we’re gong to focus on something known as residual sugar, which, simply stated, is the grape sugar left over after fermentation. Remember–wine, in extremely basic terms, is fermented grape juice. And fermentation is what happens when yeast is added to the juice squeezed from grapes. The hungry little yeasties eat the natural sugar from the grape juice, and the result is carbon dioxide, heat, and…(drumroll)…alcohol! Generally speaking, the sweeter a wine tastes, the higher the alcohol content.

Because Señorita Vino loves you so much, here’s some extra ammo to protect yourself if a wine bully disses you for enjoying sweet wine: Some of the world’s finest wines are sweet. Yep, they’re known as dessert wines, and they go by the name of Sauternes, Tokaji (pronounced TOAK-eye), or ice wine. There are others, of course, but you may hear about these more often.

Dessert wines are extra-sweet because the sugar in the grape is more concentrated at the time the grapes are picked. If you see the words “late harvest” on a wine bottle, chances are that wine will taste honey-sweet. If you’re wondering how the sugar in the grapes gets concentrated in the first place, here are the three most common ways:

1. Noble rot. This is layman’s terms for botrytis, the Glinda the Good of the fungus world. This gray, ash-like mold grows on grapes from vines located in certain climates and causes fluid to slowly evaporate out of the grape, leaving behind more sugar. Grapes with noble rot are used in making Sauternes, one of France’s best known dessert wines. If a guy treats you to a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes, he’s a keeper. And if you toss him, I want his number. Kidding. Señorita Vino is happily married. And Señor Jim, if you want to make me happier, a half-bottle of Chateau d’Yquem should do the job.

A classic pairing: Blue cheese and Sauternes dessert wine.

2. Cryoextraction. Cryo-whaaat? All this means is juice extracted from frozen grapes. Ice crystals are separated from the crushed frozen grapes, leaving the good stuff (sugar) in the juice. Canada and Germany produce some of the world’s finest ice wines (eiswein in German). Just remember that if someone orders ice wine on a first date, you definitely want to consider a second date.

3. Dried grapes. That’s right, chicas y chicos–raisins! Not the kind you buy at the grocery store, though. To make certain dessert wines, grapes are either picked late and dried out on straw mats, or they’re left on the vine until they shrivel. An easy way to remember this if you’re bilingual: The Italian word for dried grape wine is passito. Sounds like ‘pasita,’ or ‘little raisin’ in Spanish, ¿no?

And that, my darlings, is the skinny on sweet wine. Where do you land on the sweetness scale? Do you prefer the taste of honey, or do you like your wine dry? Is one better than the other? Do tell–I’m all ears!

19 thoughts on “Vino 101: What makes a wine taste sweet?

  1. Very cool educational post. I do enjoy sweet wines.

  2. Thanks for passing along the knowledge, great post.

  3. I love reading your posts and learning new things! I love sweet wine!

  4. I love reading your blog because I learn so much!!!!! Now I have to go on a search for sweet wines y te cuento. Saludos!

  5. Great post! Thanks for sharing!!

  6. Thanks for this! I love different types of wine but I happen to love red wine. Do the same principles apply for a sweet red wine? Thanks!

    1. Thanks for reading, Lisann! Yes,the same basic principles (residual sugar, winemaking techniques) apply to sweeter red wines, however noble rot and ice wines are white. Plenty of dried-grape sweet wines are red, though. You may be familiar with some of the more popular ones, including Recioto della Valpolicella. Port and Madeira fall under the category of fortified wines. ¡Salud!

  7. I love sweet wine and I am very bright! Lol. I almost always drink desert wine. Love it!

  8. Fascinating! And I do love sweet wines best. Thanks for the lesson on how they get their sweetness!

  9. It’s almost as if you wrote this post for me! 🙂 I love sweet wine, but I’m often made fun of by wine bullies who claim that only those with “unsophisticated” palates prefer sweet wine. Thanks so much for the lesson. I’m going to teach those wine bullies a thing or two. 🙂

    1. Happy to hear it, Leslie! And good for you for standing up for your personal taste in wine. ¡Salud!

  10. I want one of each! I do love to taste sweet wine. Learning so much about wines. Thank you.

  11. que rico! I love sweet wine! thanks for sharing !

  12. Yet another winner of a post–witty, funny, informative. I don’t like sweet wines at all. And I’m not saying this as a dis since I confessed in a previous comment that I am Señorita Two Buck Chuck! Ah sí, if one of your readers tosses a guy who shows up with a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes, send him my way!

  13. Será normal que cada vez que leo tu blog quiero tomar vino? me encantó este artículo!

    1. Totalmente normal, Natalia! Me da mucha alegría que te gustó el artículo. Gracias por leer. ¡Salud!

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