When someone asks for a fruity wine, do they mean sweet?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

When someone asks for a fruity wine, do they mean sweet?

—Peter, Canada

Dear Peter,

Great question. I think “fruity” and “sweet” are two of the most confusing terms in wine and, as you may suspect, they are often used interchangeably.

For people like myself who take a serious interest in wine, "fruity" and "sweet" represent two very different concepts. A “fruity” wine is one in which the fruit flavors are dominant and take the spotlight (as opposed to vanilla, spice, toast, herb, earth or mineral flavors). I'd more often refer to a "fruity" wine as one that is "fruit-forward."

A “sweet” wine has perceptible residual sugar (that is, all the sugar from the ripe grapes did not convert into alcohol during fermentation, and some is leftover, or “residual”). Most table wines are "dry"—they don’t have much residual sugar, or perhaps just a touch of it. I usually reserve the descriptor “sweet” for dessert wines, which can be truly unctuous and sweet like syrup—some of the finest wines in the world are made in this style, from Port to Sauternes.

Where they overlap can be confusing. A lot of people use the term "fruity" to favorably describe red wines that have very ripe fruit flavors, and those ripe fruit flavors can often be reminiscent of something sweet, even though the wine is technically dry. And not to split hairs, but lemon and grapefruit are fruits as well, and I would never confuse, say, the fruity flavors of a crisp, mouthwatering Sauvignon Blanc with being sweet.

I find it easiest to avoid these terms completely, so as not to add to the confusion. If the term “fruity” comes up, you can ask for an example of what the person means, or a wine they had that was “fruity” to them. It doesn’t have to feel like you are putting them on the spot, you can say, “Oh, fruity like a candied white Zinfandel, or fruity like a young, bold red? I find Grenaches quite fruity.”

Likewise, with the term “sweet” you can try to clarify. “I think something as sweet as a Port with candied flavors wouldn’t go with this poached salmon, but perhaps a richer Chardonnay with notes of ripe peaches might do the trick.” New wine lovers are probably just as frustrated trying to express what they want or don’t as you are trying to understand them.

If the person you’re talking to is not following along with your subtext, you can always ask them to name a bottle of wine they recently enjoyed (without judgment!) and hopefully that can help. But of course, we all have our own wine vocabulary and history and cultural reference points, so let’s all be patient with each other out there.

—Dr. Vinny

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