It's elemental: does wine have a language problem?

Trying to read between the lines in tasting notes is always interesting. I’d also nominate “fresh” and “acidity” as key buzzwords lately.

Because I’m sensitive to sugar levels in red wine, I tend to carefully examine when someone says a wine is “ripe” or “round” and the wine comes from a hotter climate or vintage.

I once had a Spanish wine with oysters, and suddenly knew what that meant. I didn’t think to take a note, and I haven’t been able to find another wine with that precise taste.

Same with Chardonnay. I once had a beautiful “buttery” French Chardonnay, I’ve never tasted that richness and fullness again.

To me, most wines at most restaurants taste acidic or lemony, if white, or fruity or tannic or light, if red.

The sommeliers use words to describe wine, but it doesn’t translate to what my mouth tastes. I do love a good jammy wine once in a while, but once again, I’m usually disappointed when at a restaurant.

“Ripe” and “round” are not indicators of sweetness. Virtually all red table (i.e.: non-fortified, like Ports, or flavored, like vermouth) wines are dry.¹ “Ripe” and “round” are generally indicators of “ripe” fruit – think ripe cherries, cherry jam, and a cherry-based compote – and “round” body – as whole milk has more body than low-fat, and half-and-half more than whole.

Ripe grapes are crushed and the sugar is fermented into alcohol. In an overwhelming majority of wines, the fermentation does not stop until all the sugar has been consumed.

In order for the wine to contain residual sugar, one of several things must happen, including but not limited to:

  1. The winemaker must “arrest” (stop) the fermentation by adding alcohol (e.g.: brandy, neutral grain spirits) to kill off the yeast and thus retain the natural sugar;

  2. The winemaker must remove the yeast through a process such as filtration, reverse osmosis, or via the use of a centrifuge, and thus there are no live yeast cells to continue the fermentation;

  3. The yeast generate so much alcohol that they cannot survive in the solution (wine), and thus they collectively commit suicide; or,

  4. The fermentation must be “stuck” through natural causes and, despite efforts to get it restarted, it just doesn’t happen.

¹ Certainly some exceptions do exist: besides Late Harvest Zinfandels, which are deliberately sweet, some Zinfandels make contain trace amounts of sugar (0.5-1.0% r.s.); although most Lambrusci (Lambruscos) are secco or semisecco (dry, or off-dry), some are indeed sweeter than that; and there are some red sparkling wines that are produced in a “less-than-Brut” style, including some with definite sweetness.

Jason, your informative post is technically correct, but these indicators when used in wine reviews definitely affect perceived sweetness and balance at times on the palette, even for dry wines. Jammy is another one. Maybe there is a lack of acidity or other balancing factors. So perhaps sugar level is not the word but definitely perceived taste is a big issue.

And CLEARLY perception is what counts here! In this case, yours. That’s the most important thing. (And yes, I’d say low acid/high pH is the key factor in most cases.)

My perspective comes from being a wine write for over two decades and my own nit-picky desire for accurate descriptors and definitions. It’s like the alcohol content that appears on the label. You probably know as well as I that some people will look at a wine with, say, 16% alcohol and automatically presume the wine will be “hot,” while the wine at 13.8% (or 12.6%, if there is still such a thing) will not be. In truth, however, the latter wine may show its alcohol more prominently on the palate and finish than the wine will a higher level of alcohol.

Bumping this for further discussion, during the course of the last year, I have discovered that there is actually quite a variance in the amount of residual sugar in supposedly “dry” wines. For example, maybe you have a Spanish wine from Rioja made in a traditional manner that ends up at 1-2 g / L of residual sugar, yet a more commercial wine from California can be above 5 g / L or even above 10 g / L. So in additon to in some cases the grapes being overripe and causing some flavors to perhaps overwhelm available balancing acidity, it also seems like for some wines there can be a residual sugar issue.

I take it from your post then that this is an intential result that some wineries take to make the wine appeal to a broader audience?

It’s been taught for decades at UC Davis that the human tongue cannot detect r,s, (residual sugar) below 0.2%. It’s also been claimed by some academics that once a wine is below 0.5% r.s., that it won’t taste sweet per se, but feel “softer” on the palate. Finally, it is also very difficult to get yeast to ferment must completely dry, meaning 0.0% r.s.

Remember, too, that the laws and regulations which govern wine production vary from country to country, and can even vary within the US from state-to-state. For example, when making wine from Vitis vinifera grapes here in the US, it is illegal to add sugar to the must or to the wine, so any true residual sugar is just that – residual sugar from the grapes themselves left over from the fermentation. When using V. labrusca in the US, however, the addition of sugar is perfectly legal. However, in Europe, you can apply for permission to add sugar and it will almost always be granted. Getting back to California, it’s legal to add acidity. (Sugar no, acid yes.) Europe bans the additional of acid to the must. (Sugar yes, acid no.) Why?

Because grapes here have no problem reaching and exceeding the level of sugar needs to make wine; however, vines “respirate” acidity in hot weather (like people sweat), and sometimes the acidity is too low. Now, ignoring the issues of global warming, etc., it’s been illegal in Europe to add acid…well, the Europeans never needed to add acidity, as the cool climate mean that acidity was never a problem. But in some years, the grapes had a difficult time getting ripe…so go ahead and add some sugar.

In many wines, the level of r.s. is “traditional.” In other words, “We’ve always made ‘x wine’ this way.” For example, take Chenin Blanc. Never mind the some Loire Chenins are bone dry, the most popular Chenins in the US in the 1950s was Vouvray. Vouvray had some r.s., so when Robert Monday introduced Charles Krug Chenin Blanc, he made sure that his brother Peter left some r.s. in the wine. It was intentional, and the result was that Charles Krug Chenin Blanc was the #1 selling domestic wine in US restaurants, until it was knocked out to the top spot by Robert Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc. At the time, every winery was making Sauvignon Blanc as a sweet wine – like Sauternes, but without the Botrytis (ooops!) – but he knew there was a dry Sauvignon in the Loire Valley named Blanc Fumé de Pouilly, so he decided to make a dry Sauvignon Blanc and call it “Fumé Blanc.” GOLD!

So, yes, 99 times out of a 100, the r.s. in a wine is intentional.

The wine that comes to mind is “The Prisoner” red wine that is incredibly popular, closer to 10 g / L residual sugar. They must arrest the fermentation to achieve that then.