[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

A few words on how to translate the grades of sweetness, which can be the sweetness of grape juice sugars left unfermented in wine, fermentation having stopped naturally; or the sweetness of sugars unfermented that stay that way because of temperature control and a sterile filter; or the addition of sterile-filtered unfermented grape juice to reach a certain level of sweetness (called Süssreserve, sweet reserve, in Germany, where it is legal & practiced in a surprising amount of respectable rieslings); or (as in champagne) the mixture of cane sugar or grape juice concentrate and finished wine added to disgorged sparkling wine just before bottling, where this mixture is called the liqueur d’expeditionthe finishing liquid, and the practice dosage, dosing.

In many of these cases, style, traditional practice, and law dictate how you label the resulting level of sweetness, which depending on acidity and other things may not taste very sweet at all. In others, though, such as the sneaky few grams of sugar left in big, modernist, high-alcohol reds for mouthfeel, or basically any table white wine in Alsace, you won’t know until you drink it, and maybe not even then.

What is “dry” wine? Almost all of them. Sweet wines used to be rarities, prized, reserved for popes and emperors. Then refined sugar became widely available, temperature control & filtration made cheap sweet wine on an industrial scale possible, and somewhere along the way “dry” acquired its current cultural connotation of prestige, seriousness, etc, so that the first and most useless question inevitably asked of a list of (uniformly dry) red or white wines is “Which is the driest?”

By the time it says dry on the label, though, sugar is often in actually in play, whether French sec (Vouvray allows up to 8 grams, as long as your acid is high enough) or German trocken (usually up to nine). Sec champagne (which gave the Germans Sekt, their generic word for sparkling wine) is not very dry at all, although it does reflect the fashionable norm of a century or so ago. To go drier than the 17 to 35 added grams per liter of sugar that sec means for champagne a new category, bruthad to be conjured up, with its connotations of savage or brutish; gross, as opposed to net; and raw or unfashioned, as in raw ore or wool, unplaned timber, unpolished gemstones, and unvarnished opinions.

Brut, ironically, still means that sugar has been added, so the new generation of untouched sparkling wines from Champagne needed to go even further in labeling: extra-brut, brut nature, or brut zero (more than raw, naturally raw, and the awkward raw plus nothing). A bottle might say non-dosé, undosed.

Meanwhile, alongside your dry chenins from Vouvray you’ll find demi-sec, or half-dry, which has something in common with the synonymous German halbtrocken (now practically extinct), or the slightly more common and melancholic feinherb, bittersweet.*

*See Stephen Bauer on Lars Carlberg’s Mosel wine site for more on that from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, if you’d like.

Some of the sweetest wines in France will bear the designation moelleux, from the low Latin medullosus, filled with marrow, with its senses, per Larousse, soft and elastic, as for a carpet or a pillow; tender, as in meat, or tone of voice; sweet and velvety to the taste, ear, or sight, as for example a soft chocolate, a babbling brook, or a fine drapery; in literature, who is graceful, flexible, soft and round, curvy, sensual.

A lot of label designations that suggest sweetness, but don’t necessarily require it, refer to time of harvest, or its conditions, such as whether you’ve waited late in the season for the grapes to begin to raisinate on the vine, or for their water to be sucked from them by a fungal rot, or for a cold snap around the winter solstice to freeze them overnight. You might dry the grapes on wooden racks or straw mats to concentrate the sugars, as the ancients did in Roman Italy, Spain, and Greece, and name the wines, dry or sweet, raisined, straw, holy, or forced.

(The Italians have an intricate and incoherent regional profusion of sweet wines, all of which have names, and we’ll talk about them some other time.)

In Hungary, the sweetness levels of Tokaj, puttanyos, are an old measure of the number of 25-kilo baskets, puttony, of boytrytized grapes dumped into a wine barrel.

The Germans are obsessed with the specific gravity of grape juice as a measure of quality, with a tiered system they railroaded into law in 1971. The entry-level, confusingly, appropriates the word, kabinett, for what used to be the highest quality wines in the old days: wines saved for the cabinet. Afterwards: spätlese, late harvest, (the French literal equivalent, Vendages Tardiveswill be much sweeter), and auslese (selected harvest), refering to a process of selection which you also might see referenced in French as a trie, a sweep or pass through the vineyard. And with that we’re well into dessert wine territory. Spätlesen, even auslesen, may be either dry or sweet; the  guarantee do you have when a producer puts it on the bottle is that no cane sugar was added during fermentation to prolong it and raise the alcohol content (a process named, in France, after the chemist Chaptal who invented the procedure, and in German, Trockenzuckerung, dry sugaring). 

In the Austrian Wachau, they classify sugar ripeness along the same lines as the Germans, but in their own allusive code: the lighest Steinfeders, named for the Steinfeder-gras growing near the vines, scientific name Stipa pennata, common name feather-grass (and, in Hungarian, orphan maidenhair); Federspiel, a falconer’s glove, and the taming method in the falconry beloved by local nobility known as the feather-game; and the ripest Smaragdmeaning literally an emerald, and by extension the small, emerald-colored lizards basking in the sun of the Wachau’s terraced vineyards.

Venture deep enough into the American heartland and you’ll see a proliferation of back-label sweetness bars on table wines, dry to semi-dry to semi-sweet to sweet. Your sommelier’s earnest protestations to the contrary (“There’s no such thing as a red that isn’t dry!”), you’ll see $8 to $14 supermarket retail bottles, some of them regional wines, like the 12.5% alcohol “Grand Traverse Select,” a “sweet, 100% vinifera red wine grape blend” from northern Michigan. You’ll see reds from Yellowtail in Australia, which tend to end up at around 10 grams of sugar after grape concentrate has been added.  You’ll see, everywhere, Gallo’s immensely popular Apothic red blend, described by the UK wine critic and Master of Wine Tim Atkin as “undrinkable,” and by its own sales reps in the mid-aughts as a “Menage-Killer,” with its 16+ grams of sugar and total lack of transparency as to additives or sourcing, and your attempts to find out anything useful about this high-volume national brand will instead be met by pages upon pages of wine review blogs written by people subsisting on samples sent by PR flacks, all posted sometime around fall 2012, which must have been around the time Gallo started its charm offensive, most of them quoting or paraphrasing the same press release language and back label copy, which includes the comically arch claim that the brand is inspired by “a mysterious place where wine was blended in 13th century Europe.”

Nothing there fun to translate, though.