When describing wine, I'm guilty of using confusing words like "chocolate," "peach" and "honey." I don't literally taste the sweetness of these things, only the flavor impression of these foods. The sweetness comes from how ripe the grapes are when picked and whether the winemaker wanted to keep some "residual sugar" in the final product. During fermentation, the yeasts convert most of the natural sugar in the grape juice to alcohol. Ferment all of it and you'll have a very dry wine, but if you stop the process, residual sugar will hang on.
As I've said before, sweet is not a bad thing. Natural grape sugar makes wine more approachable and helps smooth acids. The levels of sweetness create several levels of wines. Regular table wine with a touch of the good stuff appeals to a broad range of people and combats the natural acidity in some grapes; semi-dry is great consumed before dinner or to tame fiery foods; and then there's full-fledged, rot-the-teeth-out-of-your-head syrup in dessert wines.
For table wines, savvy wineries like Toasted Head have made a fortune marketing Chardonnay that everyone thinks is dry, but in actuality, isn't dry at all, in the definitive sense. Sugar is measured in grams per liter, with most "dry" wines having less than 2 grams per liter. Toasted Head Chardonnay has 3.5 grams per liter. But some grapes, like Sauvignon Blanc, need to be coddled a bit, otherwise the experience of drinking them would be none too pleasurable to our delicate tongues. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc often weighs in between 4-5 grams, but you'd never know it. Many "dry" Rieslings from Germany fall in the 5-12 grams range, and you can definitely taste it. See how this works? One man's "dry" is another man's ...
Semi-dry, the category White Zinfandel falls into, ranges roughly from 10 grams to around 30 grams. A "Kabinett"-level German Riesling frequently has more than 41 grams per liter. Yes, it's sweet, but people (other than Americans) love the stuff. Dessert wines, produced with overly ripe grapes and designed to be sipped and not slurped, are often labeled with a percentage of sugar, rather than gram content. I've seen 12 percent as well as 18 percent. Do the math.
To make it all easier for everyone, I'm going to start indicating the sweetness levels on wines I review, on a scale from 1-10, with 1 being driest. That way, you can gauge your purchases. But I encourage you to try sweetness of all ranges, since you never know what you might like.
Kim Crawford 2003 Unoaked Chardonnay Marlborough. SW =4. . $16. Full-bodied, creamy, elegant and fun. Full of peach, tangerine and lime. So glad someone is making Chardonnay without oak, as these guys have for years.
Pedroncelli 2002 Pinot Noir Frank Johnson Vineyards Alexander Valley. SW = 2. . $15. A lighter-style red wine with bright cherry, shy tannins and a touch of aggressive oak.