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What is semi-sweet wine anyway? Misnomer or fact, we look at the wine sweetness chart and what falls where

Wine sweetness, semi-sweet, dry or sweet?

What is semi-sweet wine anyway? Misnomer or fact, we look at the wine sweetness chart and what falls where

We often hear the terms ‘dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet or sweet’ in reference to wine. Dry or sweet are easy enough for most of us to differentiate but, when encountering a wine list or waiter who refers to a semi-sweet wine, what do they even mean? Fruity? Sugary? Cheap? How sweet (or dy) is semi-sweet? And how would we classify a wine in this way? If you’ve been puzzled like us, here is a bit of a breakdown and some guiding tips to choose the wine that suits you best.

Not surprisingly, wines are classified as dry, semi-dry, medium or sweet to give you an idea of how sweet a wine tastes. This sweetness is collectively based on the residual sugar – balanced with the level of alcohol, acidity (which helps counter sweetness) and amount of tannins – which occur naturally in grape skins, seeds and stems, adding a more bitter taste, making the wine less sweet. Wines described as semi-sweet are typically balanced and have smooth, well-rounded flavour profiles  – not overly acidic or overly sugary to the taste.

Residual sugar refers to the sugar remaining after fermentation stops, or is stopped, and primarily comes from the fruit sugars in wine grapes, but it can also result from the addition of unfermented must or ordinary table sugar.

Generally, there are three methods winemakers use to sweeten wine
  1. Adding sugar – usually sucrose or common table sugar.
  2. Stopping the fermentation process before the yeast has consumed all the fructose and glucose.  (This helps to retain some of the natural sugars and fruitiness of the wine.)
  3. Adding a concentrated grape juice back into the wine after fermentation,  which will increase the fruity taste.

Another important factor in determining sweetness is when the grapes are picked. Typically, grapes that are picked later are more fruity and sweeter than wines from grapes that are picked earlier. But of course, the climate is another huge factor here. The hotter it is, the faster the grapes may ripen, bringing more sugars earlier on, and vice versa in cooler climates.

The grape itself won’t tell you whether the wine is dry or sweet or anywhere in between. For example, a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chenin Blanc can be made as both drier wines or dessert wines, depending on the winemaking method and when the grapes are picked.

So what is a semi-sweet wine?

Technically speaking, wines that have a residual sugar level of 3% and above are considered medium or semi-sweet. However, most people only perceive residual sugar in a wine when it is above 5 grams per litre (g/l), so that marks the starting point for semi-sweet wine. For example, wines such as Grenache, Malbec, Moscato/Muscat, Pinot Gris and Riesling could all be considered semi-sweet wines.

Be careful not to confuse fruitiness with sweetness. Some dry wines are more fruity than others, and this fruitiness may communicate itself as slight sweetness, without it necessarily being sweet on paper, in terms of its sugar content. A Pinot Noir for example is technically dry, and yet its cherry or strawberry notes may convey a sweetness that is not.

Now that you are a bit more familiar with semi-sweet wines, here are tips to consider:

TIP 1: Sweet whites often fall under the dessert wine category but are is also great wines to have with something savoury – like finger foods, cheese platters, pastas with creamy sauces, breads and smoked meats.

TIP 2: If you happen to be searching for a sweet red wine, remember a key label clue is the alcohol content. Choose red wines with an alcohol level of between 8 and 10% – which will be fruitier and lighter bodied.

TIP 3: If you’re counting your calories it may seem obvious to opt for a drier wine, and you’d be right. Sweeter wines do (almost by definition) contain more kilojoules than dry wines.

TIP 4: If you’re a lover of spicy food, consider pairing with a sweeter or more floral wine such as a viognier or a riesling. Highly acidic wines like Sauvignon Blanc will make  chilli burn hotter (not in the good way!) and so pairing with a semi-sweet wine not only softens the burn but complements the food better without competing with the intensity of flavours.

TIP 5: Still confused? When all else fails, read the bottle. Often our palates are not very good at tasting actual sweetness versus perceived sweetness when other factors come into play, like fruitiness, acid, tannins and wood, which can all be deceptive to our ability to taste sweetness. So if you are looking for a particular wine bracket (lower in sugar or sweeter to suit the right dish) look on the wine bottle label for the grams of sugar per litre, and keep 5 in your head as the magic number  – lower than that is drier, higher is semi-sweet and above.

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