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My red tastes dry, but is it?

In a piece for the Evening Standard on drier reds for diabetics on 28 November 2023, James Grimshaw discusses sweetness in red wines and why there might be a lot more sugar than wine drinkers realise. There have been a few articles in recent years on this topic, prompting some confusion around sweetness in red wines. Most people are aware of sweetness in white wines, but most would have thought of all red wines as being dry. So, can you assume your favourite red is dry? In a word, no! At least, not in a technical sense. Many big and popular brands of red wine have what is called residual sugar in the final wine, anywhere between 10g and 16g per litre. To give some context, a red can be technically considered as dry if it has less than 4g per litre, although most would have even less than this. (In fact, Laurent Miquel reds are all fermented to almost total dryness, i.e. less than 1g per litre).

So how is it that many reds are actually sweet? There are a few ways that a wine will have some residual sweetness, namely natural grape sugars left in the wine after fermentation has completed, but a winemaker may also add unfermented must to the wine, giving a sweeter final blend. They do this because, as humans, we've evolved to enjoy sweeter foods - it's a basic tool of survival. When humans had to forage for food, if something tasted sweet, it could be generally considered safe. Conversely bitter foods triggered a warning in our brain, flagging a potential poisonous food. This is one of the reasons why weaning babies often struggle to accept the bitterness of green vegetables at first, leaning more towards the sweet fruit purees. So basically, we often like a sweeter taste in a wine, particularly at the beginning of a wine drinking journey.

Drier wines however are generally better for food pairing, and given the importance of food culture in France (and much of Europe), you'll find that many red wines are fermented to total dryness, to match well with local dishes. The focus instead would be on the overall balance of the wine to get the tannins, fruit profile and alcohol in harmony with one another, thus complementing a choice of foods and traditional pairings of meat, fish or vegetarian dishes. In fact, many regional specialities are particular to a certain food and wine pairing, and take their name from wine, e.g. boeuf bourgignon (a beef casserole traditionally made with a Burgundian Pinot Noir), coq au vin (originally a chicken dish from Alsace, made with Riesling) and of course oysters with Chablis (although we're likely to recommend Albarino when in the south of France as keeping it local is always better!)

Irish journalists John Wilson and Leslie Williams have also written on this topic and Decanter wrote an article explaining more on residual sugar in wine. You may find that your palate has evolved since you first started drinking wine yourself? Maybe you have your own preferred pairings of food and wine - we'd love to hear about them. Don't forget to share them in the comments!

Here's what James had to say about our 2021 Pinot Noir:

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