Wine Tasting: How Sweet it is

I recently had lunch with an old friend that I hadn’t seen for some time. Mark is a winemaker at one of the local Missouri wineries nestled along the river up near Agusta, about thirty minutes north and west of St. Louis. This is a busy time of the year for Mark, making sure that the grapes are harvested properly and everything is ready for the winter. We’re talking about terroir. (pronounced ter wahr) Terroir is a French word that has no direct translation in English, so wine people just use it in French. The word is based on the French word terre, which means soil, so a lot of people think that it means the dirt that you grow the grapes in. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. It is the combination of all of the factors that go into making a bottle of wine. Things like underlying rock, climate (sun, wind, rain) slope of the hill, and the altitude. Some of these factors vary from year to year. Mark explained that more rain or sun can affect how that year’s wine is going to taste. Making a good wine is one of those things that is part science and part art. In the end though, I think it all comes down to a matter of personal preference.

A few years ago I was trying to explain all of the subtleties of tasting a fine wine to my friend Jim. Jim’s prior experience with wine had been limited to downing a couple of Bartle and James wine coolers after work. We were sitting in a pretty classy Italian restaurant with my friend Kay and Jim’s wife, Tina. I was holding a nice glass of Cabernet in front of me. I showed him how to look at the color of the wine by contrasting it to the white tablecloth, swirling it around in the glass, sniffing the bouquet, and then taking a sip, moving it around gently in your mouth to experience all of the flavors. After all, I had just finished watching the movie, Sideways. So far he was following me pretty well. Then I showed him how to gently draw a little air into his mouth, almost like a reverse whistle, to intensify the flavor. Unfortunately, he got a little confused at this point. He breathed in too hard and then shot the wine through his nose and out onto the white tablecloth. It was a little embarrassing to say the least. His wife remarked that this type of thing was the reason she didn’t take him out in public very often.

The point is, the world of wine can be confusing even after you get through learning how to taste it. White or red? Sweet or dry? Fruity is not the same as sweet. Sweet wines can be fruity. Dry wines can be fruity. One thing that you can do is to determine your sweet/dry threshold. If you are one of those folks who likes their coffee black in the morning then you probably will tend to like the dry red wines. If you put cream in your coffee, you probably like softer flavors, like a Pinot Noir. If you take your tea without sugar, you probably would like a dry white wine, like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio.

Wines are generally separated into classes based largely on sweetness. A 0.7 percent sugar is the maximum amount at which a wine is still considered to be dry. How sweet a wine tastes is also influenced by the amount of acidity it has. A high level of acidity will mask the sweetness. Low acid wines with a lot of sweetness are classified as “flabby.” Most people can taste some sweetness at the 0,5 percent sugar level. The thing is that most people like sweet, but think that they are supposed to drink dry. Wines with a higher level of sweetness are generally considered to be of lower quality.

So, the type of wine you drink is influenced by how you take your coffee and your tea. But one of the things that make learning about wine fun, is the enormous variety and complexity. The soil, climate, country, region, vintage, family�.even the variation of the oak barrels from year to year, make wine tasting an ever-changing adventure. You can truly taste the terroir.

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