February 14th is a date we associate with sweetness. Sugar hearts, chocolates with mysterious soft centers, and a fragrant bouquet of roses are just a few of the things that drive our urge to indulge during this cherub studded holiday. Beyond the sappy cards and candy, many couples will celebrate in a more subdued way- an extravagant dinner, some extra tenderness or the gift of each other’s time and attention. While certainly less flashy, these ‘drier’ expressions of love can be just as meaningful and even more complex than their sugar-coated companions.
Much like the love between two partners, wine can be either sweet or dry and still express complex flavors and meaning.
RE:ROOTED Wine & Girl Scout Cookie Pairings (photo by Leigh Darilek)
Dry Vs. Sweet
A basic differentiation between wines is ‘dry’ or ‘sweet’. We have many sweet associations that offer a point of reference for the palate such as candy or desserts, but the term Dry is often misconstrued. Many people are firmly in one camp or the other, unwilling to budge based on preconceived notions.
Many wine lovers first think of the term Dry as describing the feel of the wine on the palate. For example, does it rob the mouth of moisture leaving it dry? This visceral effect is created by the acidity and possibly tannin components in the wine that offer structure.
The true definition of ‘Dry’ wines lies in the absence of sugar. During fermentation, active yeast cells consume the sugar present in the grape to create alcohol. In ‘dry’ wines these sugars are consumed to the point of being undetectable to the human pallet. In the sugar’s place, we can detect the other organic, mineral, tannic characteristics of the wine.
A ‘sweet’ wine has sugar that is detectable to the human palate. This may be naturally occurring sugar from the grapes or sugar added to the juice to encourage fermentation. After fermentation is complete, the remaining sugar is referred to as ‘residual sugar’. The human tongue is actually LEAST sensitive to sweetness and can detect sugar at a roughly 1% concentration. Extremely few tasters will be able to notice sweetness at a residual sugar level of 0.5% and below.
Due to this sensitivity, we often mistake ‘sweet’ for a ‘fruit’ taste in wines. Imagine a piece of strawberry flavored hard candy and a real, natural strawberry. We would categorize the hard candy as ‘sweeter’ than the natural strawberry due to the higher sugar content. But that does not also mean that the hard candy is ‘fruiter’ than the natural strawberry. In direct comparison, we can distinguish the difference.
Thus, we can have ‘dry’ wines that are also ‘fruity’ in taste – just not a sugary sweetness. We can also have ‘sweet’ wines that are not consistent with what we imagine natural fruit tastes like. Navigating these descriptors can help pry die-hards from both camps away from their wine comfort zone.
How to Pair Food & Sweet Wines
When calculating how much ‘sweet’ you want in a wine, it is helpful to know some basic terminology. Wines can be made with a residual sugar of .5% to higher than 16+% and the sweetness level can be indicated on the label with terms like ‘Off-Dry’, ‘Medium Sweet’, ‘Semi-Sweet’, ‘Dessert Wine’, etc. In red wines, the presence of sugar must be notably higher (1.5%) before becoming detectable due to the masking effect of tannins.
Pairing wine with the dessert course is a natural instinct. The best rule of thumb to follow is allowing the wine to be ‘sweeter’ than the dessert it is paired with, otherwise the sugary dessert will overpower the wine, giving the impression of a flat, bland pairing. However, sweet wines can really tame the toughest savory components as well. Try these creative combinations to shake up your meal.
Salty- Salt loves to bring a savory element to sweetness, the two marry very well. Try a Port, Late Harvest or Ice Wine.
Funk (Cheese & Charcuterie)- Blue Cheese is all about the funk! Contrast is ideal in pairing food and wine. When too many similar flavors come together they tend to mute each other. Find a contrasting flavor to make the special notes sing. Try a Sauterne dessert wine from Bordeaux and watch them both flourish.
Acid- Acidity is dimmed by the presence of sugar and vice versa. Try a Muscat with high acid dishes to bring balance to the plate and the glass.
Spice- Last but not least, let’s turn up the heat! There is not a more perfect pairing than spicy food and sweet wine. Spice (heat) is an oil, so water does no good. The water and oil will not bind, they separate and the water spreads it over the palate like oil on a fire. Viscosity (richness) in wine is increased by the presence of residual sugar and offers something more stable to quench the heat. Also, sweetness is a natural neutralizer for spice. Try your favorite spicy Thai dish with a bottle of Riesling.
While many wine lovers tend to begin their journey with sweet wines and evolve to drier styles, there is no need to stop exploring the wide and wonderful range of sweet beauties out there!
Try RE:ROOTED's ‘Rooting For the Girls’ Sampler available FEB 17th-28th.
In support of The Girl Scouts of America, we’ve agreed to participate in the 2022 Flavor Fest!
RE:ROOTED 210 will be featuring a wine sampler of four wines paired with four Girl Scout cookies for $22 per guest. We’ve also invited local troops to sell cookies at our location on Saturday & Sunday during the Flavor Fest challenge.
Jennifer Beckmann and her husband John own the Re:Rooted 210 Urban Winery in Hemisfair