In recent years, sweet reds have dominated the wine industry. They are considered "drinkable" wines because of their smooth flavor, brought on by higher levels of residual sugar and lower levels of tannins, which is the compound that leaves a dry feeling on your palate after drinking. Individuals who used to prefer white wines or blush wines, like rosé, tend to lean toward these sweet reds more, because they possess that familiar sweetness they like.
There's nothing wrong with preferring or having sweet reds at the ready; these sweet reds are a great introductory red wine option for most wine novices and happen to pair well with almost anything. However, you can't really develop your palate with sweet reds, for that, we need to delve into some fine wines.
What is Fine Wine?
When a wine is noted as being "fine," it has to encompass a few characteristics. Fine wines come from the best vineyards using the best grapes and are made by outstanding vintners or winemakers. From the very beginning, fine wines are set apart from he rest.
Fine wines tell the story of its region, climate and the winemaking process. All encompassing, this is also known as terrior, which is the characteristic taste of a wine that is unique to where the grape was grown and how the wine was made. Fine wines typically come from established vineyards that have a reputation for making exceptional wines; they are usually aged for a longer period of time and are more expensive, costing anywhere from $50+ per bottle, given they have good reviews and an established history.
Sweet Red vs. Fine Wine
The main differences between sweet reds and fine red wines are their residual sugar content and levels of tannins. Dry and sweet are opposite characteristics in wine; a dry wine has less residual sugar, and it typically has a higher tannin level.
Red wines usually have three main tiers of categories - dry, semi-sweet or sweet, and this description is based upon the tannin and residual sugar content of each bottle/grape variety. The fermentation process converts the sugars in the wine grapes into alcohol, and the vintner decides when to halt this process depending on the type of wine they want to make. While most sweet reds say they are sweet reds on the label, you can also determine how sweet a wine will be based on the alcohol content listed on the label as the Alcohol by Volume or ABV. For most wines, the lower the alcohol content, the sweeter the wine will be; younger wines will also have less tannin. So as you begin to try different wines, read the labels, as they will give you a lot of information about the wine.
Sweetness vs. Flavor
When you notice the sweetness of wine on the tip of your tongue, many people mistake the initial sensation of the sweetness for flavor or fruitiness, but this isn’t always the case. Sweet wines are not necessarily more flavorful or fruitier than fine wine; they can actually be less flavorful, as wines that ferment for longer periods of time and develop more full flavors.
Aromas of fruit in young, sweet red wines are mostly aromatic, and you can usually taste 4 sensations: sour, bitter, salty and sweet. When drinking fine wine, you will be able to smell the aromas and taste them in the wine. Fine wines may also contain more tannin and will usually balance the flavors of the wine with the mouthfeel, providing a more interesting flavor and taste experience.
Drinking Fine Wine
Fine wine is as fun to drink as a sweet red, if not more so, especially if you are interested in learning about wine and how to taste it. Drinking fine wine doesn’t have to be intimidating, expensive or any other preconceived idea that you may have about it. Fine wine, just like sweet reds, should taste good, make you feel good and make you want to drink it again. You can either go out and buy some highly rated fine wines, or ramp up your palate and knowledge by understanding varietals better. Read on in our piece "Understanding Varietals.")
You can also keep a note journal for tasting notes in order to become more familiar with how to properly taste wine, be sure to choose the right glass for the wine style being tasted and taste a variety of wines. (Learn more in "A Guide to Wine Glasses".)
Which ever way you chose to explore fine wine is up to you and should reflect your own personal style and tastes. If you’ve been enjoying sweet reds for a while, start by trying some fine white wines, and then switching over to lower-alcohol fine red wines, so you can develop your palate. Make notes about your tastings, and overtime, you may notice that your palate will change and that you may like wines with more complex flavor profiles, lower residual sugar and more tannin (aka fine wine). Drinking fine wine doesn’t have to be any more of an event than drinking a sweet red as long as you enjoy it, and it tastes good to you. (Read our article "Wine Tasting 101" for more.)