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Wine tips: fruity vs. sweet

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One of the most common mistakes people make when first tasting wine is to confuse the fruitiness of a wine with sweetness. Although fruit flavors may be associated with sweetness in your mind – since fruit is sweet – in wine fruit may exist in wines that have absolutely no sugar left over.

Sweetness in wine is a function of the amount of Residual Sugar (RS) in a wine. As a wine ferments, yeast turns the sugar in grape juice into alcohol to create wine. Some wines have this fermentation process stopped before all of the sugar is consumed by the yeast, leaving some sugar left in the wine. Others may allow the process to finish, but then add grape juice or sugar back to the dry wine. These are sweet wines. Other wines allow the fermentation process to continue until there is no sugar left, resulting in a completely dry wine. Some wines allow the fermentation to remove all but a very small amount of sugar, resulting in a dry or off-dry wine.

Fruit characteristics in a wine may exist in everything from sweet dessert wines to bone-dry red wines. A big jammy merlot or zinfandel is a good example of a wine that is bursting with fruit flavors – but which has no sugar left. Even in white wines, fruit flavors may be very strong without any sugar. Many people believe they dislike gewürztraminer and riesling wines, because they dislike the sweet varieties which once flooded the market from Germany and Austria. While these sweet wines make up a considerable portion of gewürztraminer and riesling produced, there are many exceptional, bone dry examples as well. The signature fruit flavors of pineapple, mango, and other tropical fruits may still exist, but without sugar.

The easiest way to differentiate fruit from sugar is to eliminate the sense of smell from the equation. Fruit is a flavor characteristic that is mostly aromatic – you smell fruit notes much more than you taste them. Sugar, on the other hand, is felt on the tongue and tasted exclusively in the mouth. So if you smell a wine and it smells sweet, and you taste it and it smells sweet, you can then plug your nose and taste it again. A truly sweet wine will still taste sweet, while a fruity dry wine will lose almost all of those ‘sweet’ characteristics.

 

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