Sweet v Fruity

Why you can’t smell sweetness and why fruity wine can also be dry.


Well, here’s a subject not to be sniffed at – literally. Because you can’t actually smell sweetness. You might imagine you can: think of a heady jasmine flower, or candy floss at the fair – they smell sweet, don’t they? Actually no. Because you can only taste sugary flavours – you can’t smell them. Sweetness, along with sour, salty, bitter, and savoury (often called umami) are the only flavours that can be detected on your tongue. 

Here’s an example to prove the point. Take a bowl of ordinary white sugar and have a sniff. What can you smell? Not much. Now take a pinch of sugar and put it on your tongue – whoa, sweetness explosion! 

Our noses are able to distinguish aromas made up of tiny molecules which are circulating in the air around us. Research indicates that we can detect a minimum of 10,000 different smells, but each one of us has different permutations of odour-detecting cells in our noses. This affects our awareness of what we’re smelling. So, for example, while my schnozzle may be ecstatically blown away by a certain perfume, you may find the aroma too overpowering to the point of actually feeling sick.

Aroma v Flavour

So why do we think we can smell sweetness? It’s all to do with our perceptions and associations of things. Research has suggested that one reason why a particular odour is attached to a particular taste is because we are smelling the odour at the same time as experiencing the taste and they become inextricably linked. This actually isn’t that surprising because when you chew food or drink something aromas from the food or liquid are released and travel from your mouth to your nose, so the whole eating/drinking experience is a combination of taste and aroma. 

It’s not a huge a leap of the imagination, then, to think that we can actually smell the sweetness in a wine gum, say, when what we’re experiencing is the association of sweetness, because from experience we know it will taste sweet.

Talking of wine (gums), let’s have a look now at why fruity wine can also be dry.

We are smelling the odour at the same time as experiencing the taste and they become inextricably linked

Why fruity wine can also be dry

How many times have you looked at a wine list and seen a wine being described as having aromas and flavours of fruit – strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, apple, apricot... I’d wager the answer is loads of times. And, before you became versed in the oenological lexicon, how many times did you assume that because of these fruit-based associations, the wine would be sweet? It’s not your fault; the majority of fruit does indeed taste sweet. (There are exceptions, of course – think of lemon.) It was the association of fruit = sweetness that came into play when you may have assumed the wine would be sweet. 

But not all fruity wines are sweet – in fact the majority of wines which carry fruity descriptors aren’t sweet at all. How come?

The clue is really in the word descriptors. Wine bods have developed a whole gamut of words to describe the aromas and flavours of wine which have nothing to do with sweetness or dryness. And a good number of those words involve fruit. Looking through a wine tasting sheet from an international wine education provider the other day I was reminded just how many fruity terms they use – over 40! – from redcurrant and gooseberry to stewed blackberry and orange marmalade, each of them carrying specific nuances of meaning and inklings about the aromas and flavours you might come across in a wine.

The sweetness or dryness of a wine, however, has everything to do with how it tastes on the tongue. In fact, we could say it’s all to do with the varying sweetness rather than dryness, because it’s degrees of sweetness that our tongue can taste.

Wine and Sugar

With wine, sweetness or dryness refers to the amount of sugar left in the wine after all the natural sugars in the grapes have been fermented into alcohol – or not, as the case may be. This sugar is known as residual sugar, or RS, and is usually measured in g/l (grams per litre) of liquid. Which sweetness ‘label’ the wine is given – from bone-dry, through off-dry, dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, to sweet – all depends on the amount of residual sugar. In fact, the vast majority of wines are actually fermented to dryness.

So just because a wine is jam-packed and bursting with fruity flavours, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sweet. A fruity wine can be dry with little residual sugar: for example, you can have a bone-dry Brut Nature Champagne (0 to 3 g/l RS) that is redolent of apple and apricot. And at the other end of the sweetness scale, you can have a deliciously sweet Hungarian Tokaji Aszú wine (a minimum of 120 g/l RS) with flavours of peach and fig. Both wines display lashings of fruitiness and yet they are at opposite ends of the sweetness spectrum.

And there we have it: why you can’t smell sweetness (no, you really, honestly can’t) and why fruity wine can also be dry (yes, it can) in a nutshell – or should it be in a grape skin?

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