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"Fruity" is Not the Same as "Sweet": Understanding Sweetness in Wine

As a wine educator one of my goals is to help fellow wine drinkers better understand their own palates so they can make more informed purchases. We use a lot of words to describe how wine tastes and smells but these can be confusing because these traits are oftentimes perceived rather than actual. A perfect--and infamous--example of this is the great “fruity” vs. “sweet” debate.

Sweet Vs. Dry

The terms “sweet” and “dry” have technical--and measurable--meanings, which relate to residual sugar. Wine is made by converting grape sugar (glucose and fructose) into alcohol. At times, sugars are left over during the fermentation process, called residual sugar. If there is no residual sugar present, the wine is characterized as dry (the opposite of sweet). Conversely, a sweet wine will contain residual sugar to some degree.

Residual sugars, which are measured in grams per liter, will rarely be listed on the label but available on the wine’s technical sheet. Most wines actually fall into the “medium sweet” category (35-120 g/L or 3.5%-12%), and may be surprising to some wine drinkers who think they only prefer categorically dry wines. Another reason a wine may taste dry is because the presence of acid or bitterness can mask or balance out the sugars.

The truth is many sweet-tasting wines are technically less sweet than they seem, and many dry-tasting wines are sweeter than reality. That’s because our palates are not particularly attuned to detecting sweetness. And the confusion is confounded by other aromas and structural components in the wine. We may perceive sweetness, but actually be detecting alcohol, tannins, or more commonly, fruit aromas and flavors.

Sweet Vs. Fruity

“Fruity” is a term used to denote that a wine has flavors or aromas of specific fruits. Rarely does a wine smell or taste like the grapes from which it is made, but it is entirely capable of resembling the rest of the fruit basket! When tasting a wine, consider whether the wine reflects the qualities of citrus fruits (lemons, limes, oranges), orchard fruits (apples, pears) stone fruits (apricots, peaches), tropical fruits (pineapple, mango), red fruits (strawberries, cherries, raspberries), or even dark fruits (blackberries, blueberries).

A wine can exhibit “fruity” traits but in reality be bone dry, i.e. contain little to no residual sugar. To experience this, focus on the wine’s finish on your palate after you’ve swallowed it. Do you detect a lingering sweetness?

Moreover, any wine--be it Pinot Grigio or Cabernet can be dry or sweet based on winemaker choices--so don’t boycott an entire style of wine based on previously perceived sweetness. Finally, don’t judge a wine simply by the level of sugar present. If the wine’s other structural components are in balance the wine will be enjoyable regardless if the wine is technically sweet or dry.

Wine can be confusing, but I want to help demystify it and promises not to judge! Let’s learn about wine together! Your place or mine? Reach out to me at or visit, Instagram (@thevinicola), or Facebook (theViniCola) to join Columbia’s wine community.



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