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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Can you rank red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot by dryness or sweetness?
—A.S., Raleigh, N.C.
That seems like a very simple question, but it has a very complicated answer. One of my most popular questions ever was “Which is sweeter, Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay?” My answer was that both grapes can be made in a variety of wine styles, and the vast majority of examples out there are not sweet. But in the end, most Sauvignon Blancs will likely come across leaner, crisper and more herbal than most Chardonnays.
I have the same challenge here. A typical Merlot will have virtually the same amount of sweetness as the typical Cabernet Sauvignon: Almost none. Most of the time, winemakers ferment the grapes until virtually all of the sugar from the grapes has converted into alcohol.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons why one wine might taste or feel sweeter than another. Grapes grown in a warm climate or in a warm vintage will taste riper than grapes grown in a cool climate or cool vintage. Other variables depend on when the grapes were picked, and various methods of winemaking to coax more (or less) fruity flavors out of the grapes, and the final mix of a wine’s acidity, weight, alcohol and tannins.
I think it would be more helpful to categorize reds by their weight and boldness. Tannins are probably the biggest variable here. Red wines are made with a lot of contact with the grape skins and seeds—that’s where that puckery, drying feeling of tannins comes from. Tannins definitely affect your perception of how fruity and sweet a wine would taste. Of course, I have to be clear that there are a lot of decisions along the winemaking way that will affect how much the tannins will be present in a wine, particularly barrels, which also impart tannins. Two Merlots won’t have equal tannins, but in general, they will be less tannic than a Cabernet Sauvignon.
So, to answer your question (in the way I’m comfortable doing it), the boldest, biggest reds would include Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Tannat and Petite Sirah. Next I’d put Syrah, Malbec and Zinfandel. Merlots, Barberas and Grenaches are considered more medium-bodied reds, while the lightest reds are typically Gamay and Pinot Noir. Hope that helps!
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