Can I tell a wine’s level of sweetness from the label and bottle?

Posted by Jay Lee & Peter Koff MW on 7th Jun 2019

Most wines in your local liquor store are dry. But not all.

In many cases, the label tells you if the wine is sweet. If wine label says it’s sweet, dolce or dulce, it’s sweet. If you find the German word Feinherb or a word starting with demi-, semi- or halb-, there is some level of residual sugar.

Sometimes it is more difficult to know if the wine is sweet. Take German wine for example. A clue here is alcohol level. Alcohol is a product of fermentation. When a wine is fermented to dryness, the alcohol level will be higher than the same wine with some residual sugar. So, if you see a German wine say from the Mosel with an alcohol level of 8% or 9%, chances are there is meaningful residual sugar. This is a reliable pointer but is not always accurate! Another clue: German wines with a high level of residual sugar often have a gold capsule.

Some sweet wines have alcohol levels not that different from dry wines. That can come from two sources: (a) very high sugar levels in wines made from partially dried grapes; Sauternes is an example and (b) fortified wines; wines that have been made by stopping fermentation with the addition of spirits to preserve the original natural sugars. Sweet sherries and ports are examples of fortified wine.

Often, understanding the sweetness of a wine from the package is somewhat difficult, especially for those relatively new to wine. Keep the information above in mind and you will diminish the risk of inadvertently buying a sweet wine. When in doubt, ask your wine merchant! 

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