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Is it asking too much for California white wines to taste dry?


It happened again. I got another email from a winemaker who was not happy that I called his white wines “sugary sweet” when, in fact, “All three of these wines are very dry” (as he wrote), and one of them was “a lot drier than the industry average.”

This is not the first instance of this sort and I suspect it won’t be the last. It raises important questions, one concerning the sensation of sweetness, and the other concerning the language critics like me use to describe that sensation. If you think about it, this is some of the most important information we can provide: where a wine falls on the dry-sweet continuum. If for no other reason, that determines what food to pair wine with, and accompanying food is wine’s supreme duty.

I think a lot of white California wines taste too sweet. What does that mean? Well, the most obvious sweet taste is sugar (or honey), so when I review a white wine that tastes like fruit juice — lemonade, limeade, pineapple — that’s how I describe it. Fruity-juicy sweet. That does not mean I have performed a technical analysis of the wine to measure exactly what the residual sugar is. I suppose I could buy some little kit that does that, but does my job include technical analysis of wine? Where would that stop? I could send my wines out to a lab for a stripdown on brettanomyces, TCA levels, etc. but I don’t see where that would make me a better wine writer. No, my job is to describe the wine the way it smells and tastes to me, as a normal human being, so if it’s “a little too sweet and sugary for comfort” (as I described one of the winemaker’s white wines), that’s what I write.

This brings up the issue of language. We wine writers do have to be careful not to make claims we can’t prove. Thus, instead of writing, “This wine has tons of new oak,” if I don’t know the precise oak percentages, I’ll write, “Smells very new oaky” or something like that. There’s a big difference. The former is a factual statement, while the latter is simply my considered opinion. You can’t sue me for stating an opinion, last time I checked.

How can a white wine taste overtly sweet when the residual sugar is .04% or .07%, as the winemaker in question told me his were? Most wine textbooks say the human threshold for perceiving sweetness is about 0.8%. I have spent the better part of my career trying to understand this anomaly. There are many reasons, in theory, why a “dry” wine can taste sweet. One is that the taster may have an unusually acute sensitivity to even the slightest amount of residual sugar, which for me is not the case. I don’t seem to have a freakish sensitivity to anything, including TCA, for which I am happy. High alcohol too can make a wine taste sweet and glyceriney. Insufficient acidity may permit a very fruity wine to taste cloying. Caramelized oak barrel staves or, even worse, phony oak infusions also can give a sense of sweetness. There are probably other factors that could account for the impression of sweetness in a technically dry white wine, and I invite people to comment on them.

At any rate, I admit to being very intolerant of white wines that taste sweet. If you read my reviews and you come across a statement that a wine “tastes sugary sweet,” let me explain right here, that doesn’t mean I’ve measured the residual sugar. It just means what it says: to me, it tastes sugary sweet.

If you’re a white wine and you want to be a little sweet, then for crying out loud, be Chardonnay (or, forgive me, Viognier). If you don’t want to be Chardonnay, then at least be dry and scoury and minerally, not a jellied fruit bomb. If you want to be an off-dry white wine (and there’s nothing wrong with that), then be off-dry and don’t be ashamed to admit it. And, of course, you can always be a full-blown dessert wine. These are California’s four choices in white wine. Anything whose image is dry when it’s really sugary sweet is not going to get a very good score from me.

  1. Steve,

    I am a bit confused when I get to the last paragraph. You say that you are intolerant of white wines that taste sweet, which I understand – but then are you saying it is okay for a Chardonnay to taste sweet and also Viognier? — So basically, aside from some things made in much smaller quantities, is your problem with Sauvignon Blanc?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. Adam, I’m talking about impressions of sweetness. Chardonnay especially oaked tastes full bodied and unctuous and honeyed. That is its role. (And Viognier at its best is layered along similar lines.) Chardonnay should taste that way. Sauv Blanc on the other hand (and Pinot Grigio and many other whites) should provide the alternative of dryness, crispness, acidity and minerality. I do have a major problem with Sauv Blanc in California because so often it’s just a pop-fruity juicy drink.

  3. I was just having this conversation in the shop the other day….I don’t think it’s just white wines either. There were 4 of us tasting a very high end domestic Pinot Noir, 2 California wine buyers, (and drinkers) and 2 French wine buyers, (and drinkers). The first thing that came out of the French wine buyers mouths, “Wow, that’s sweet”, the California wine buyers just looked at us like we were nuts and argued about what the percentage of residual sugar might be. Thing was, didn’t matter what the percentage….tasted sweet to us.

  4. Samantha, I have a California palate, so I like many of these Pinot Noirs that the French find sweet. But even for me, some of these wines (white and red) are over the top.

  5. Morton Leslie says:

    I would like to know the textbook that says the sensory threshold of sugar is above 0.7% residual. I would also like to know the winemaker that leaves 0.7% residual in a wine for any reason other than for its affect on flavor. (Maybe they think they are the only ones in on the Kendall-Jackson “secret winemaking technique.”)

    A teaspoon of sugar will add about 0.3% residual sugar to a wine. So next time you have a nice dry wine, pour a glass and then dissolve a teaspoon of sugar in the remaining wine in the bottle and see if you can tell the difference.

    Beyond intentionally leaving residual sugar, low acidity, sugars extracted from oak, and high alcohol all add to the sweet profile of domestic wines. For someone whose tastes were developed on good Chablis and decent White Burgundy, American Chardonnay is cloying and tiresome most of the time.

  6. Well, boys and girls and dear friends, because so far, all the commenters are friends, wine has no obligation to be anything. It does not have to taste austerely dry to be good Pinot Noir (see Dehlinger Pinot Noir, which is high in alcohol, high in glycerin, high in sweet oak, high in grape sweetnees and yet is well-received).

    Alsatian Pinot Gris is not uniquely a dry, minerally, austere wine. I am with Adam Lee on this, Steve, it sounds like you really only want SB to taste dry. The fact of the matter is that Rombauer Chardonnay is very high in RS and tastes sweet. Yet, it is also clean, fruity and balanced. In some vintages, I like the wine and in some I do not, but when I have liked it, I have intentionally chosen to serve that admittedly sweet Chardonnay with
    Thai or Indian dishes, where I find I like it better than many Rieslings. And I personally like Riesling more than any other grape.

    There are a lot of sweetened wines in this world that have been sweetened in a way that I do not much prefer, and, you and I are like the “French” in that regard. We do find some wines to be cloying, out of balance, hard to use with food. But, I am guessing from your comments that you do not object to offdry as a style so much as wines being offdry without adequate balancing elements.

    So, Steve, my answer to your question is “yes, it is too much”. We need to accept wine on its own, and if it differs from the norm, we need to judge whether those differences work or do not work for each of us and to explan why.

  7. Interesting topic indeed, and as others have pointed out, not limited to white wines!!!!

    I think Morton has hit the nail on the head with his explanation – many winemakers intentionally leave some RS in their wines to help the fruit ‘pop’ – both for its affects on aromas and taste.

    Other reasons why a wine may have some RS – stuck ferments; stopping ferments early in hopes of it finishing in barrel (and this not happening); winemakers adding back concentrate to add flavor (!!!).

    I too am not a fan of most whites with ‘perceived’ RS . . . but as others have also noted, this will vary from pallate to pallate . . . and a little bit of RS is not a bad thing if it works to ‘balance’ the wine.

    Looking forward to hearing frm others . . .


  8. Agree with you, Steve, that far too many CA white wines taste too sweet.

    Regarding the question of sweetness perception in wine, I found an interesting paper by George Vierra on the Web:

  9. I see a new comment from Morton, and I think the following needs to be added.

    As someone whose tastes were developed on decent Chablis and good White Burgundy (note the intentional difference from Morton on this), I find most top-notch CA Chards to be anything but cloying and tiresome. How many times do we need to find wines like Marimar and Gary Farrell and Freestone and Ramey and Hudson and Pfendler and Bjornstad and Londer and ………………….. to be made in clearly dry and balanced styles before we stop hearing the same tiresome rant about CA Chard?

  10. Morton Leslie says:

    Sorry to be so tiresome Charlie, but it is also tiresome to a wine buyer when 9 bottles out of 10 taste like they are made from the same recipe of malolactic, diacetyl, oak, and alcohol. And it is unfortunate, but I do not have samples given to me, I have to pay for them; so I can only afford to drink good Chablis and decent White Burgundy.

  11. I have a bunch of ideas, some of which have been mentioned:

    Oak – Carbohydrates are extracted from oak.

    Complex sugars – Perhaps when tests for RS, only simple sugars fermented by S. Cerevisiae are measured. If winemakers inoculate with a given yeast strain, it may not be capable of fermenting every sugar as might occur in an ambient yeast scenario.

    Fruity/sweet esters – This could follow from choice of yeast strain if particularly fruity esters are produced.

    High alcohol – The viscosity gives the impression of sweetness.

  12. Greg–

    All those things are possible, and very likely true to some extent in most wines. They are also true in White Burgs.

    And none of that deals with the point made earlier that there are lots of CA Chards that are not excessively sweet but are balanced, rich and, yes, dry.

    Morton, why not try some from the list I mentioned. You might be pleasantly surprised unless you are unmistakenly wed to Chardonnays with the tight and restrained fruit of Chablis. Nothing wrong with that, but it is a stylistic preference and does not mean that all CA Chards are overripe, overoaked, and overdone.

  13. Balance is mentioned by several people above but I think it deserves more attention particularly the role of the various acids in wine.

    Acid has a large impact on how RS is perceived. Lower acid levels will increase the perception of sweetness, higher will lower it. To taste this first hand, there is a simple experiment one can do with a few bottles of Coke.

    Take two bottles of Coke (Mexican with cane sugar works best). Each will have roughly 9 tablespoons of sugar in them. Neutralize the acid in one of them with baking soda. I don’t remember the exact amount so start with a little and taste.

    Both will still contain the same amount of sugar, but the Coke without the acid will taste very sweet – more or less like just plain sugar in liquid form. The PH of Coke is 3.4 – in the same range as many wines.

    If you can find yogurts from around the world, you can taste the same thing. Recipes will have the same amount of sugar but different levels of acid with very different resulting perceived sweetness.

  14. Terry Thiese commented in a video one time about sweetness. There is the sweetness of a Twinkie which he called Yuck. And then the delightful flavor of an apple. I enjoyed his comparison, probably to simplistic for your readers.

  15. This is one of the contributing factors to why I dig the Matthiasson white so much…

  16. Steve,

    Thanks for the post. In general, wines from California are too sweet. The problem is that in the U.S. we don’t think about how well a particular wine goes with food. A wine that seems dry, by itself, often tastes much different with food. We don’t grow up drinking wine with food, so wine that is too sweet appears normal to us.

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