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In Good Taste

All in the residual sugars

If you’re new to the wine world, trying to understand all of the terminology and jargon used by wine lovers can be overwhelming. When you’re trying to catch up, you may be inclined to try every wine on the shelf to figure out what you like. But that would get expensive fast and probably not end in the result you want. So, if you’re not sure whether you like sweet or dry wine, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide so you can find out where you stand. While our focus will be more on introducing you to sweet wine, you’ll gain a better understanding of the difference between sweet and dry as we go along. 

What is sweet wine?

If you’ve never had sweet wine, you might be thinking it’s just full of sugar or tastes like dessert. Dessert wines are a part of it, but most sweet wines aren’t overpowering, nor are they sugary like soda. Let’s talk about what really makes wine sweet, the winemaking methods used to produce it, and how some of wine’s sweetness is all in our heads— or at least influenced by our perception. 

As you can see on the wine sweetness bottle chart below, both red wines and white wines cover the whole spectrum from bone dry to very sweet, so color isn’t an indicator of sweetness. 

Wine Sweetness to Dryness Scale

The categories indicate how much sugar or sweetness a wine has, with bone dry being essentially zero and very sweet at the maximum level. We pulled some definitions from our wine glossary to clarify: 

  • Very Sweet: As sweet as can be, usually highly concentrated and categorized as a dessert wine. 

  • Sweet: Scientifically speaking, a wine with over 30 grams of residual sugar per liter is classified as "sweet" (as opposed to "dry" or "off-dry").

  • Semi-Sweet: Contains higher than 3% residual sugar, but not as strong as sweet.

  • Off-Dry: Unlike your average "dry" wine, which is free from sugary flavor, off-dry (aka semi-dry) bottles are just a little sweet.

  • Dry: Indicates lack of sugar or sweetness, which can be very satisfying.

  • Bone Dry: Less than 0.5% residual sugar, a level that can hardly be detected by our taste buds. Extremely dry. 

How to Know If a Wine is Sweet by Looking at the Bottle

Let’s say you’re headed to a party, and you asked the host what to bring. “Any bottle of sweet wine,” they said. So, to appear knowledgeable, you said, “Absolutely. I know just the thing!”

While you scour this guide for “just the thing,” we recommend looking closely at the labels on the shelf. There are plenty of very sweet wines in the dessert category, but they’re probably not what they were referring to for dinner, even though they are sweet. So how can you determine which wine is appropriately sweet for the party? Here’s how to decipher the label.

Lower Residual Sugar (or High Alcohol Content) is a pretty good indicator of how sweet your wine will be

The most reliable indicator of a sweet wine is usually lower alcohol content, aka low ABV percentage. Learning the names of popular sweet wines can also lend you a tip to choosing the right one. Riesling and Moscatoare are the most common sweet choices for white wines, and a Port or Lambrusco will be good picks for red wines. Keep an eye out for words like “doux” and “dolce,” which mean sweet in French, as well as “demi,” which can indicate some sweetness. 

Related: Best Wines to Pair with Your Holiday Meal

Difference between Sweetness and Fruitiness

In a typical cocktail, a “fruity” drink is often loaded with added sugar or syrups, rarely containing any fruit at all. But when it comes to wine, sweetness and fruitiness aren’t interchangeable. There are fruity dry wines and “fruitless” sweet wines. This is due to residual sugar, the amount of sugar left in the wine after fermentation. It’s also worth noting that our perception of fruity is often based more on aromatics, whereas sweetness is determined by taste. 

Because all grapes are high in sugar content, dry wines will always contain natural sugars. When yeast is added during fermentation, these natural sugars convert into ethanol, better known as alcohol. Most of the grape sugar will turn into alcohol at this point, and winemakers will then add additional sugar to preserve the sweet taste. The yeast, try as it might, is working against too much sugar to convert all of it into alcohol. The result is a wine that’s higher in residual sugar, and a sweet wine is born. 

Depending on the grape varietal, acidity, tannins, and other factors, a wine may still embody a wide range of fruit notes and aromatics even if residual sugars are low. That’s why fruitiness and sweetness are both used to describe very different tastes in wine.

Alcohol Content vs. Residual Sugars

If residual sugars are converted into alcohol, thus requiring more sugar to keep the wine sweet, what’s the relationship between alcohol content and residual sugars in making a sweet wine? Ah, the science of sweetness continues.

Okay, investigator, let’s look a little closer at those alcohol labels again. You’re going to be looking at two acronyms. ABV, which is short for Alcohol by Volume, is probably the most familiar one we see. The less obvious acronym (until now) is RS. What does RS stand for? Did you guess Residual Sugar? If so, you're correct!

When you compare these two numbers, you can deduce what’s on the drier or sweeter side. With a high RS and lower ABV, you have a sweet wine. With higher ABV and lower RS, it’s on the drier side. If you prefer to skip the math (and who can blame you?) and just keep an eye out for sweet wine, look for 11% ABV or lower in general. Per usual, there can be exceptions to the rule, but most of the time, a wine with 11% ABV or lower will be on the sweet side of the spectrum. 

Methods to Produce Sweet Wines

Winemakers use several methods for producing sweet wines. Here’s a quick roundup. 

How are Sweet Wines Made?

Fortified Sweet Wines
What is Noble Rot
Ice/Cryoextraction for Sweet Wines
Straw Wine for Sweet Wine

Fortification: This method ferments the wine with brandy, creating a fortified wine. The brandy blocks yeast from breaking down so much sugar into alcohol. However, if the winemaker added brandy after the fermenting process, it would return a drier wine. 

Noble Rot: An unusual but rewarding method, this method actually comes from a disease called Botrytis. In wet, moist conditions, grapes can be infected with Botrytis when they ripen. If the grapes are moved or exposed to a drier environment, the Botrytis fungus dehydrates the grape and intensifies its natural sweetness. Grapes picked during this time are known to produce concentrated sweet wine.

Ice/Cryoextraction: The process of making ice wine is pretty close to what you would expect. Winemakers take frozen grapes still on the vine and make what results in the concentrated dessert wine we know as ice wine. In some countries, grapes are frozen at 20 degrees Fahrenheit and pressed while still frozen in a method called cryoextraction.

Straw Wine: Making straw wine, also called raisin wine, is essentially the opposite of the process for ice wine. Harvesters spread grape clusters on mats (historically made of straw) in full sun until they dry or raisin. After about a week of sun, they’re ready for the winemakers to ferment, press, and bottle. 

Tannins, Acidity, and How They Affect Sweetness

Our taste buds’ perception of sweetness also plays a role in how sweet we consider certain wines. Some people are more sensitive to tannin than others due to the amount of protein in their saliva. If you have more protein in your saliva, tannin has less of an effect on your perception of dryness, so a wine that’s only slightly sweet to others may seem sweeter to you. How do you gauge the amount of protein on your tongue? We’re not sure, but it makes for a fun wine fact!

What Makes a Wine Sweet?

Acidity also throws off our perception of sweetness because its sourness overpowers the residual sugar. A wine with lower acidity will feature sweeter flavors even if its residual sugars are low, but wines with high acidity will almost always taste drier. 

Last but not least, anything that smells sweet will probably taste sweet, too. The same way we get excited for cookies straight out of the oven, a good whiff of a wine’s aromatics will be enough to prime us for the first sip. 

Related: Guide to Red Wine

What to Pair with Sweet Wines

Sweet and semi-sweet wines pair well with their opposites, especially smoky or spicy flavors. It’s a good rule of thumb to contrast flavors for a well-rounded taste, so things like charcuterie with hard cheese, nuts, smoked sausage, and other cured meats would go well with sweet wines. They can also go well with sweet and savory plates like honey-glazed ham or pork.

When it comes to dessert wines, we highly suggest going all-in with the decadence! Pair your ice wine or Port with cheesecake, dark chocolate, strawberry cake, or whatever sweet suits your fancy. (There’s a reason they call it “dessert wine”!) We’ve even made a guide to pairing your wine with Halloween candy. Because when dinner’s done and the dessert wine comes out, it’s time to treat yourself!

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Rosé of Sangiovese

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Sangiovese can be found in both the Chianti and Montalcino regions of Tuscany (it all sounds so romantic, right?) and is known for producing classic medium-bodied wines. Rosé wine is actually made from red grapes, and this is where the Rosé of Sangiovese comes to play. Crisp, fruit-forward, and easy-to-drink, it's everything you want in your bottle of Rosé and more.

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The perfect pizza wine. Barbera is a simple wine that’s not only easy for winemakers to make, but easier to drink. It’s low in alcohol and an Italian red wine we implore you try chilled because it’s truly *chef’s kiss*. Classic Barberas are fruity, medium bodied and offer the perfect hint of tartness. It’s also the best of both worlds in terms of light and heavy red wines. Let’s say you’re having a friend over who always prefers a cab, but you’re more of a Pinot Noir kinda gal. Order a pizza and open the Barbera for a perfect middle ground kind of evening. After all, the combo of good red wine and pizza is the great equalizer.

Montepulciano

Andiamo

Big, bold, and full of flavor—exactly what you’d expect an Italian wine to be! This classic Italian grape produces some of Italy’s most straightforward red wines and is often used as a blending grape. Not here, though. We let Montepulciano do the heavy lifting as a heavy red wine and shine on its own. If you enjoy the smell of leather bound books, nibbling on dried fruit, and complementary notes of bitter, dark chocolate and sweet plums, you will love this Italian wine. No need to pair it with any certain dish—Montepulciano tastes great with all the Italian classics.

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Cabernet Sauvignon

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If Pinot Noir is the light and juicy queen of reds, Cabernet Sauvignon is her bolder, heavier, meatier sister. Often referred to as just “cab,” it’s the wine of France’s Bordeaux and California’s Napa Valley. There’s nothing subtle about Cabernet Sauvignon—high in alcohol, full-bodied and robust, you can usually find this red served with a ribeye, New York Strip, or filet mignon (re: carnivores love cab). Classic cabs usually offer tasting notes of chocolate, coffee, and darker fruits like prunes and plums. The Unprecedented Cabernet Sauvignon is as classic as they come, and we highly recommend letting the bottle sit and mellow until your next red meat and potatoes dinner!

Rosé

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While it's the unofficial official wine of summer and warm weather situations, La Pluma's Rosé is one you can drink year-round, no matter the occasion. All rosé wine is derived from red grapes, and the result exceeds expectations in terms of highly-sippable, easy-drinking wine. This La Pluma Rosé is as light as its feathery namesake and is best served extremely chilled for an extremely chill afternoon of nothing but vibes. And maybe a few snacks.

Pinot Grigio

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If you’re looking for more zest in your life, a bottle of Pinot Grigio can provide that. We included a classic Pinot Grigio in the La Pluma collection because we’re all about light and easy here, which is exactly what this grape from Italy is. It has that dry sense of humor that seems so effortless with a punchy acidity to keep you on your toes, all while offering notes of lemon, limes, green apples, and honeysuckle. Long story short; when it’s been a heavy day and your soul is seeking light things only, you’ll be happy to have this bottle on hand.

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We couldn’t create the In Good Taste Unprecedented collection without the Golden Retriever of wines: Pinot Noir. Pinot is likable, it’s easy, and its natural state of being is simply charming. It’s an incredibly easy red wine to love, which is why so many people do. The grape itself is from the Burgundy region of France, but has made its way to California, Oregon, Australia, Italy, Argentina, and Germany since. Our Pinot Noir has no surprise twists—it’s a classic light red with just the right amount of sweetness to keep you coming back for another glass (or two).

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Coteaux Bourguignons

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The Burgundy region of France is home to their best Pinot Noirs, but we took the grapes into our own hands to create something extra special with our Coteaux Bourguignons. It’s a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay, which results in a French red that’s light in body but full in flavor. The ripest blueberries and freshest herbs can be easily detected in this French burgundy blend. May we suggest pairing it with some creamy brie and freshly baked bread? It’s a oui-ning combo.

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Nerello Cappuccio

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This is not your average Italian red. Nerello Cappuccio is a dark-skinned grape variety from Sicily, the Mount Etna region to be exact (yes, the volcano). Although its color is vibrant, you might be surprised to know that it’s a much softer red than it looks to be. Our Nerello Cappuccio is cherry-forward, with other tasting notes of vanilla, light coffee (like your favorite breakfast blend), and minerals. The delicate tannins in this Sicilian wine will surprise and delight you and tastes exceptionally good paired with margherita pizza or arancini balls (drool).

Chardonnay

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Ah, Chardonnay. This full-bodied and diverse wine is polarizing in its very nature: from an oak barrel-aged buttery, oaky, rich white wine, to a stainless steel-aged, mineral-driven neutral wine. Our classic Unprecedented California Chardonnay is the former, and will surely become a new favorite. Its buttery vanilla nature pairs extremely well with like-minded buttery, creamy foods such as brie cheese, lobster, crab cakes, crème brûlée, squash, corn, and mushrooms.

Verdicchio

Andiamo

A little sweet. A little tart. A little salty? You truly get it all with this white Italian wine. If you're into that biting acidity, Verdicchio will probably be high on your list of most-loved wines from our Andiamo collection. Citrus fruits like mandarin, lemon, and grapefruit are at the forefront, but what really sets this Italian wine apart is its distinct notes of almond. While our Verdicchio can start out tasting a bit tart, the more you sip, the smoother it becomes. In fact, we suggest approaching it as an aperitif (Italian for an alcoholic drink sipped before a meal to stimulate the appetite) to experience its full effect.

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Red Wine

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We’d love to introduce you to our old friend: Unprecedented Red Wine. She’s a 2019 blend that has been with us through it all and grown to be one of our more popular wines. She’s a mix of all the best Italian grapes: Barbera, Sangiovese, and Tempranillo with a splash of Mourvèdre and a few others. They’re all hanging out, having one big, juicy, delicious party! Tasting notes include a touch of spice, a hint of leather, and some of the best juicy fruits, including blackberries. She truly gets along with just about everybody!

Côtes du Rhône White

Passport

This was one of our first French wines to join the Passport collection and one sip will explain why. Some background on the Rhône Valley in France: While this region is known for its dark, juicy reds, a very small amount of special white wines are made in the Rhône Valley. Our Côtes du Rhône is packed with French-perfected, floral flavor and Old-World charm. Its natural tang paired with the weighty Marsanne grape and aromatic Roussanne grape results in a crisp, savory sip that’ll transport you to a sunbathing chair by the Rhône itself.

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Bordeaux Rouge

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When you picture medieval folk sitting around a feast with goblets of wine, chances are they were drinking Bordeaux. This wine has been made in France since forever and is arguably the most classic French wine out there. Bordeaux is known for its full body, smoky notes, and rich, oaky taste. If you love cabs, chances are you will adore Bordeaux. For our Passport wines, we had to include this classic French red for you to sip and enjoy to your heart’s content. Best savored over a rich meal like lamb ragu, ratatouille, or BBQ.

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Ventoux Rosé

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You probably know that the Tour de France is held on Ventoux Mountain in France, but did you know that the same area is known for its high-altitude rosé? This is the kind of quintessential French rosé that you don’t need to spin your wheels over—it’s simply delicious, crisp, and perfect for warm weather. Despite its delicate, pale pink color, each sip is lush with flavor, from tropical passionfruit and zesty citrus to refreshing melon. This has the potential to be your new summer go-to, so we’d suggest stocking up.

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Tempranillo

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Say “¡Hola!” to Spain’s main grape: Tempranillo. This red grape put Rioja wine on the map and is un vino tinto classico. It’s best compared to a classic cab, but with a bit more unique magic that’s hard to put your finger on, which is why it’s a part of our Wild Child line. This medium- to full-bodied wine with its relatively higher tannins usually offers complex notes of cherry, fig, cedar, tobacco, and dill. This is the type of red wine you want to buy and pour for a Latin-infused meal; think carne asada, tacos al carbon, or just perfectly cooked steak fajita meat.

Grenache

La Pluma

We knew the only red in the La Pluma collection had to be exceptionally good and exceptionally light. That’s why including a Grenache was a no-brainer. If smooth, fruit-forward, light-bodied reds appeal to your tastebuds, this could be your new favorite. The grape itself is tricky; depending on the climate of where its grown, Grenache wines could be light, dense, or somewhere in the middle. La Pluma’s version has all the airiness and flavor notes we wanted in our Grenache, which is how we know you’ll love it. Get the most of this red by pairing it with roasted meats, spice-heavy vegetables, and Mexican-inspired dishes with lots of cumin.

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Barbera

Andiamo

We really try not to play favorites at In Good Taste, but there is just something about an Italian Barbera that hits different in the best way. Barberas are the perfect wine for pizza night; they're low in alcohol, and medium-bodied but taste super light, and their berry and plum flavors pair incredibly well with savory tomato sauce and cheese! Another fun thing about Barberas? They actually taste great when chilled, which is not something we're in the habit of suggesting for our red wines. Our Italian Barbera lies somewhere between the body of a cab and a pinot and is the ideal choice for a "ladies who lunch" kind of afternoon.

$21.99

Dolcetto

Andiamo

The Dolcetto grape is an easy, laid-back, relaxed Italian wine experience. Its literal translation may throw you, though—Dolcetto means “little sweet one” in Italian, but this wine is anything but. Packed with black fruit flavors like plum, blackberries, and black raspberries, this wine has the tasty necessities that make it a true Italian drinking wine. With moderate tannins and relatively low acidity, our Dolcetto is the perfect choice for just about any occasion. This lighter red Italian wine tastes even better when paired with poultry dishes like duck or chicken and really shines with a lighter pasta.

Vermentino

Wild Child

We couldn't not have a weird white in the mix, right?! The Vermentino grape is native along the coast of Italy on the island of Sardinia (yeah, like the fish). Because of its origin, this grape offers a salty, crisp flavor that's incredibly easy to drink and enjoy. We say it's "weird" only because it's not widely known by name, but chances are you've probably had it before if you've ever ordered white wine in an Italian restaurant. If you love peaches and lemons and get a kick out of anything that reminds you of the sea, our Vermentino is the perfect Italian white to experience on a sunny day outside.

$23.99

Viognier

Unprecedented

For the Chardonnay lovers who are looking to dig a bit deeper in the world of bold whites, a Viognier (pronounced vee-own-yay) could be your next big adventure. Viogniers tend to have more range; while they can be creamy with hints of vanilla like their Chardonnay counterpart, they also offer lighter, fruitier flavors like tangerine, mango, and honeysuckle. It’s still a more full-bodied white wine, but unlike Chardonnay, it’s softer on acidity and more perfumed. Spend an afternoon with a glass of Viognier amongst the flowers and it’ll all make sense.

$24.99

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