Why Calling A Wine Dry Or Sweet Is More Confusing Than Helpful

Bottle of Madeira being poured

There can be a lot of ambiguity surrounding wine that is dry or sweet. For beginner wine drinkers, the confusion lies in the actual terminology. Sweetness is associated with a sense of taste (much like salty, sour or bitter), while dry is a sensation. It makes very little sense for these two terms to be opposite each other when discussing the amount of sugar in wine.

Explaining Dry Wine

It’s strange to call a wine dry when by definition, every liquid is wet. But that’s just one of the charming quirks about the wine industry that seems to have stuck. A deep dive on any search engine will produce some different theories on the term. One presumption suggests that sugar stimulates the salivary glands, leaving the mouth wet. Therefore, a wine without sweetness will leave the mouth dry. Theories on the origin of the term aside, dry wine is without any detectable residual sugar. It means that most of the grape’s natural sugars have gone through fermentation and turned into alcohol.

This clip from an episode of Sommelier’s Notebook, An Intro to Dry Wine, Claire Coppi and Alex Sarovich explain the conversion process.

Generally speaking, a wine with a higher level of sugar will have a lower amount of alcohol. In contrast, a wine with lower sugar levels will have higher alcohol because the sugar turns into alcohol. 

Of course, the initial level of sugar in a grape is a substantial variable factor. The sugars are higher and more concentrated in dried grapes used for appassimento-style wine, leaving more opportunity for alcoholic fermentation. The same goes for grapes that freeze on the vine and go into making icewine. Sugar levels in these grapes are drastically higher than regular table wine grapes.

Examples of Dry Wine

The vast majority of wine on the market is dry. Some flavor components may trick the palate into thinking a wine is sweeter than it is. In fact, a ripe tasting fruit-forward wine is technically still dry. Whether it’s a Pinot Noir from Oregon, a Napa Valley Chardonnay, perhaps a Shiraz from Australia or Chilean Carménère, they’re all dry.

A dry wine typically has less than 5 grams of residual sugar (the leftover sugar after alcoholic fermentation). Most dry red wines sit between 1-4g/L of residual sugar, while dry white wines are commonly between 2-6g/L.

A wine with slightly higher residual sugar can still have the perception of being dry if the winemaker appropriately balances other factors of the wine, like acidity and tannin. For instance, a Brut sparkling wine, which is defined by a range of 6-12g/L of residual sugar, still tastes dry because of the racing acidity levels needed during the sparkling winemaking process.

Explaining Sweet Wine

Sweet wines range from moderate to high levels of residual sugar. Moderate levels include the off-dry or semi-sweet category, which are wines with a noticeable perception of sweetness. Wines with high levels of residual sugar are more obviously sweet on the palate and are most often dessert wines.

There are many different ways to make sweeter wine, but two are the most common. First, the winemaker can stop the fermentation process before all the sugar is converted into alcohol. This is typically done by bringing the temperature down to near-freezing levels. It can also happen, although with more complications, by removing some of the yeast.

Alternatively, the winemaker can use very ripe grapes, which allows for residual sweetness even after the alcoholic fermentation finishes. This can happen if the yeast naturally dies down before it’s finished converting all the sugar.

Examples of Sweet Wine

The residual sugar levels of an off-dry wine, like an off-dry Riesling or Gewürztraminer, start at 17g/L. However, some people’s palates can perceive hints of sweetness at levels below that.

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Sabato Sagaria smelling a wine

Medium-sweet wines like Moscato, Madeira or Port can have a wide range of residual sugar, from 35g/L to 120g/L. 

Residual sugar levels that are above 120g/L are fully sweet or dessert wines. They include everything from ice wine to Tokaji to cream sherry.

How to Order a Dry or Sweet Wine off a Menu

When out at a restaurant, it’s not entirely necessary to specify that you want a dry wine with dinner. Whether it’s red, white, or rosé, the majority of the wine list will be dry – especially if it falls under the by-the-glass section. 

Although to be sure a wine is dry, or perhaps to confirm if you think one might be off-dry, just ask the sommelier. That’s what they’re there for!

Most sweet wines, such as icewine or Port, will likely be listed under a dessert or sweet heading.

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