In terms of wine, “sweetness” refers to residual sugar in the bottle. Residual basically means what’s left. Yeast is added to the juice from the crushed grapes, yeasts eat sugar, sugar turns to alcohol. If the yeast doesn’t eat all of the sugar, what’s left is residual sugar. Riesling, Moscato, Chenin Blanc, and some sparkling wines contain residual sugar. Red wines for the most part contain <1% residual sugar. In two years of tasting wine nearly every day, of the thousands of wines that I’ve tasted, I have had one sweet red wine. Of the thousands of people I’ve talked to about buying wine 30% of them are looking for a “less dry red wine” and 30% of them are looking for a “more dry red wine”. If dry is the opposite of sweet, and <1% of all red wine has any sugar in it at all, where is this strange request coming from?
Many red wines made in the New World style are very easy to drink and very approachable because of the tremendous amount of soft dark fruit that hits the tongue as soon as it enters your mouth. Some good examples would be Menage a Trois (a California Zinfandel blend), 7 Deadly Zins, The Prisoner (a Napa Zin blend), and many entry level Kendall Jackson and Beringer Cabs and Merlots. These wines are designed to be very accessible, and very easy to drink. Kendall Jackson’s entry level wines are meant for you to enjoy at any time, at any place. They want wines that will create wine drinkers. Mondavi’s Woodbridge Cabernet, taste NOTHING like Modavi’s Private Reserve Cabernet. Woodbridge is $6 per bottle the Reserve is $106 per bottle. To taste them side by side, you wouldn’t even guess that the Woodbridge is Cabernet at all. Why? It is their goal with these entry level wines to mask all components that could be seen as undesirable. Tannin is a word that does not exist in this world. Acidity is a word that barely exists in this world. Oak is a term that is seldom used in this world. Are these “Dry Red Wines”? Absolutely.
A lot of Old World wine bottles even come equipped with the title “Dry Red Wine.” Even Amarone is listed as dry on the bottle. The grapes that are fermented for Amarone are set out to bake in the sun before being pressed. The wine is super-concentrated and jam packed full of dense fruit. This fruit is easily mistaken for sweetness, but the wine is still classified as “Dry.”
Fulfilling the request for a “less dry red wine” is not the easiest of tasks for your server. You’d be better off being a little more specific and saying “What do you have that is similar to [insert your favorite wine here]?”
Or, here are some examples of wines that are very fruit forward, and could be seen as “less dry” :
Inexpensive wines from Lodi, California are typically very fruit forward; Zin, Syrah, and Petite Sirah are the most common. Australian Shiraz from $7-$18 per bottle is usually heavy on the fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon from anywhere, under $15 per bottle is pretty fruit friendly. Lately there have been some great deals on Spanish Cabs that are under $10 per bottle (keep an eye out). Merlot can be rather deceiving. Many people see Merlot as the grape that’s too easy to drink, and only amateurs drink it. This is so far from the truth. Inexpensive Merlot can fall into that easy drinking fruit-forward category, but as the price rises, so does the complexity. I find that many $20 Merlots drink much better than some $50 Cabs. Of course, Amarone is pretty heavy on the fruit. The next time you have $70-$80 burning a hole in your pocket, pick up a bottle of Zenato Amarone. It’s impossible not to like!
I guess the moral of the story is: You’re going to have a little trouble finding a “sweet” red wine, or a red wine that is not dry. If you can pinpoint the characteristics (that are not sugar) of the wines that you enjoy, you’ll have an easier time finding wines that are similar. In my opinion, when you can find a pretty general realm of wines that you enjoy, it makes the advancing part so much fun. If you can tell me what your two favorite wines are, or where they’re from, I can pick out what you like about them, and make some suggestions that would blow your mind.