Training Your Palate: Moving From Sweet To Dry Wine

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “I only like sweet wine, how can I learn to like dry wine?” This question comes up often because many wine-drinkers want to drink dry wine, but are only able to tolerate sweet wine. So how does one transition?

Most wine-drinkers I know, including myself, started off drinking mass-produced sweet styles like Moscato, Lambrusco, sweet sparkling varieties, and an array of uniquely flavored creations you’ll find in wine-membership clubs around the country. Allow me add a disclaimer: there is absolutely nothing wrong with drinking these types of wines. In fact, the sweet wine industry is a huge business and consumers genuinely enjoy these styles. However, many people still want to train their palate to like and appreciate dry wine and that’s our focus.

There are several good reasons you may want to ditch the sweet for dry. First, many of these sweet wines have LOADS of sugar– they are the perfect cure for a sweet-tooth. However, if you’re a stickler for sugar intake and calories, you could be consuming way more than you know. Second, so many of the mass-produced brands (the big names you recognize) get away with producing mediocre wine because the quality is masked behind all the sugar. Third, it’s harder to appreciate the delicate primary, secondary, and tertiary flavors of wine when your mouth is full of cloying sweetness.

For those looking to back away from the sugar and move into dry styles, you can naturally train your palate over a period of time. I can remember transitioning over the course 3 weeks.

Here are my steps:

Step 1: Stop drinking sweet wine immediately (temporarily)

Remove the sweet wine from your rotation. Do not drink it again until you’ve transitioned. If you cave and begin drinking it too early, you may not fully transition and be forever stuck on the sweet side. On the contrary, many people never even want to go back to sweet after they’ve fully transitioned, so be prepared for that outcome!

Step 2: Start with juicy, young, or low-tannin DRY wines

Go Juicy: The perception of a wine’s dryness varies, even when no sugar is present. Wines that are juicer, either due to the type of grape or wine-making techniques, often taste a bit sweet and are considered “easy drinking” wines because of their huge fruit presence. For whites, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc tends to be light and juicy with loads of green and citrus notes on the tongue. Many sweet wine-drinkers find this variety to be an easy stepping stone into the land of dry. For reds, California old-vine Zinfandels are often ripe and juicy, with so much juice that they sometimes taste sweet. Other juicy wines often include Pinot Noirs and Gamays.

Old Vine Zinfandel

Go Young: Age matters! Younger wines often portray a juicy taste as well because they have more fresh fruit flavors and have not yet developed aged and dryer notes. You can gauge an age of a wine by its vintage (if the year is present on the label). A wine that is only 1 or 2 years old should taste much juicer than an aged wine from last decade. Beaujolais is a wine commonly meant for young drinking. In fact, when Beaujolais Nouveau is released right before Thanksgiving each year, it is an infant! At several weeks old, it’s so fresh and juicy that it’s often purple in color. Also, it has distinct notes of banana and candy due to its unique carbonic maceration fermentation process, which sweet drinkers may appreciate. (Note: Beaujolais Nouveau sells out fast and is only on the shelves for a few weeks in November/December, so grab it when you can).

Beaujolais Nouveau

Try Low tannin Grapes. Tannins are astringent compounds found in grape skins that result in a cottony mouthfeel when we eat grapes or drink wine. This feeling adds to what we perceive as “dryness.” New and sweet wine-drinkers often struggle with highly tannic grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, or Nebbiolo. These wines are known to deliver quite a punch with loads of tannin! Look for the low tannic wines like Gamay, Pinot Noir or Grenache. That mouth-drying feeling will be much less detected in your mouth.

Step 3: Experiment & focus on flavors

Now that you’ve been on the dry track for a while, your palate has begun to shift. It is now time to bump it up a notch and transition to less juicy, older, or more tannic grape varieties. Having removed wine sugar from your diet for quite some time, you’ll notice that the natural fruit flavors are more pronounced and take center stage. You’ve arrived! Welcome to the beautiful world of wine! Here’s where life really gets interesting.

In white wines, you’ll start to develop a deeper appreciation for the green, citrus, stone and tropical fruit flavors that are loudly singing in all their glory. In red wines, you’ll be better able to pick up on the red, black, or cooked fruit flavors. As you gain experience, you can taste the chocolate, vanilla and spice found in barrel-aged wine. In more developed bottle-aged styles, you will even begin to taste other unique notes like coffee, earth, honey, or even meat. Without the sugar to mask the flavor, all the delicious nuances that allow us to appreciate wine become much more pronounced and you’ll get better at picking them out. This is when wine really gets fun! When you experiment you can follow along with the Flavor & Aroma Guide for reference.

4. Stay committed

I hope I’ve convinced you to at least give dry wine a try. Like any intentional transition, don’t give up and stay the course! You can do it!

Transition Starting Point Summary:

  • New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
  • Pinot Noir
  • Gamay
  • California Zinfandels
  • Beaujolais (preferably Nouveau)
  • Young wines (recent vintages)


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