Wine Styles: Dry vs. Sweet. What does that mean exactly?

April 13, 2015

The True Definition of Dry & Sweet

I had a discussion on Facebook this past weekend about the difference in “dry” versus “sweet” wine. We were all trying to give tips on good wines for someone that likes “sweet” and “fruity” alcoholic beverages that is looking for a cross-over into wine. It was a great reminder to how a lot of us throw those words around (myself included) when trying to ask or explain about a type of wine we like. I think this actually does a disservice to non-regular wine drinkers because most of us don’t really explain the definition of “Dry” and “Sweet”.

In the professional wine world the definition is something like this:

• Dry = without residual sugar
• Sweet = with residual sugar

And then there’s a vast spectrum of grey area in between considering wines can range from <0.5% all the way to 16+%. That’s when you’ll hear the words “off-dry”, “medium sweet” or the like. This is most common among white whites more than reds.

Left over sugar or “residual sugar” is the presence of excess sugar left over from fermentation which can give a “sweet” taste. This is the standard definition used and followed by wine professionals. Easy enough, right? Not exactly. There are plenty of dry wines that give the impression of sweetness even when there’s no sugar present due to the amount of alcohol, tannins, acids and glycerin. So what one person might call “sweet” is not technically sweet at all – at least not by definition.

Dry Wines

Let’s first discuss DRY wines.

wineglasses

Most common table wines that people would normally drink with their dinner have little to zero residual sugar in them. This includes:

• Cabernet Sauvignon
• Merlot
• Pinot Noir
• Cabernet Franc
• Syrah/Shiraz (same grape)
• Chardonnay
• Pinot Grigio
• Sauvignon Blanc
• Chianti/Sangiovese

Therefore, all of these are normally DRY.  In this regard, ordering “dry” wine is extremely easy because just about anything you’re going to order from the non-dessert wine list is going to be dry. Especially the reds.

So when anyone asks for a good recommendation on a “dry” Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir to go with their meal, the reality is that they are both already dry.  Most likely what the person is trying to ask for is a red wine that is less fruity in flavor because fruity is incorrectly described as “sweet”. What you may be trying to ask for is a wine that is “earthy” which gives the impression of being more dry than other wines.

The same thing happens with whites such as Chardonnay. Your average bottle of Chardonnay is dry so when someone asks for a “sweet” Chardonnay, what they’re really asking for is a fruity version as opposed to one overly oaked.

These are the instances when the words “dry” and/or “sweet” are highly misused and misunderstood.

 

Wines that “ride the fence” between dry and sweet.

There are wines out in the world that “ride the fence” so to speak because they are “sweet-ish” with varying degrees of residual sugar content. These wines include Rieslings, Gewürztraminer, White Zinfandel,  Chenin Blanc, Muscat/Moscato (same grape) and a few others. They can be fabulous with anything including appetizers, entrees and/or desserts. These wines are almost always white wines and are the perfect for those of us that like to play with wine and mingle in between dry and sweet versions.

While there are more of these types of wines in the world than the five I have listed below, these are the more common ones that you are more likely to see on your wine lists or beverage stores if they are available. They are:

Riesling (white):

Riesling is the one of the most versatile wines in the world and can range from dry to a full, sweet wine. It is fabulous with spicy foods and salsas. Just thinking about it makes me crave it.

Germany makes a killer sweet Riesling whereas France produces a remarkable dry version. But again, the dry version is still regarded to as “sweet” by many wine lovers because it technically contains a small amount of sugar that can be easily detected by taste. It is also extremely floral which some people mistakenly also refer to as “sweet”.

You can usually tell where a bottle of Riesling falls on the “sweetness scale” by looking at the back of the bottle. This is where the sub-cats of “medium dry” or “medium sweet” will come in very handy. If you’re not sure how sweet it is, look at the back label. It will usually have something like this (and kudos to the IRF for employing this scale for people):

rieslingtastescales

Gewürztraminer (white)

Gewürztraminer is similar in nature to Riesling and where Riesling is grown, you can usually find a small amount of Gewürztraminer. They enjoy the same climate and both originate from Germany although France is a famous growing region as well.

Gewürztraminer can be “sweeter” than Riesling (higher sugars) but it is spicy by nature. It is excellent with smoked dishes such as ham, turkey or fish.

Chenin Blanc (White):

Chenin Blanc is also a versatile wine and comes in dry versions as well as very sweet. It is called “Steen” in South Africa and a very famous french version is called “Vouvray.” Most bottles sold are somewhere in the middle of the dry and sweet spectrum, If you’re looking for a sweet version, look for the word “sec” to be on the bottle, particularly if it’s french.

Muscat/Moscato

The Muscat grape is made into a dry wine in many countries because it comes in 200 different variations but it is mostly used as a dessert wine or a “semi-sweet” wine (a fabulous one at that!) here in the US, France and Italy.

While Muscat/Moscato is grown all over the world, Italy produces the highest percentage of it (“Muscato” is simply the Italian name of Muscat). It is also used to make popular sparking versions called “Moscato d’Asti” and “Asti Spumante” which are usually classified as “Semi-Sweet” because they have around 7-11.5% sugar. How sweet it is!

If you’re looking for a wonderful version to go with non-chocolate based desserts, some California wineries makes a beautiful Orange Muscat. Sip some with a creme brulee or fruity sorbets and you’ll think you’re in heaven.

White Zinfandel

Another favorite and yet another wine similar to an “off dry” Riesling. Many White Zins contain around 1 – 2.7% residual sugar and can also contain a small amount of Muscat blended into them.

While “dry” wine lovers will sneer at White Zin with disdain because of the sugar, some sweet wine lovers will also sneer thinking it’s not sweet enough. Sighhhhh. You just can’t please everyone. 😉

 

Extra, Super Sweet wines / Dessert Wines

Most sweet wines that are very, very high in residual sugar will have the words ‘Sweet” on them. This can be in other languages included the words “Sec” in french or even “Spaetlese” and “Auslese” if you’re holding a German wine bottle.

Additionally, if you’re at a restaurant, all the extra sweet stuff is going to be listed as such and most likely be under the “Dessert” section of the wine list. Some of these might include:

• The sweetest versions of Rieslings
• The sweetest versions of Chenin Blanc/Vouvray
• Moscato
• Sauternes
• Port
• Madeira

Hopefully this HELPED and didn’t create anymore confusion! LOL!  While none of this is set in stone and isn’t 100% full proof, it is a good general rule of thumb and will rarely fail you.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below, and I’ll be happy to clarify on anything! Also, NEVER EVER be afraid to ask your server or sommelier at a restaurant. Also, the people that work at wine shops or wine bars LOVE to talk wine (that’s why they’re there) so don’t ever hesitate to chat up a storm with them.

Cheers everyone!

Tasty Vino
Welcome to TastyVino.com! I'm your hostess for all things wine and everything that pairs with it! Share your appetite with me here as I drink tons of wine, eat food, post photos and vacation around the world! Cheers!

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15 Comments

  • Malcolm Buxton
    January 1, 2013 1:16 pm

    Fascinating!

  • Cathy
    October 13, 2013 2:18 am

    Thanks so much for this info. I have tried so many different wines & have been so disappointed & kind of sipped at them feeling like a tiny little girl too young to drink real wine. The dryness really made me stay away from wine. Then around 15 years ago I discovered Spatlese after eating in German Restaurant. I thought, “Why I LOVE wine & I AM a grown up.” People do kind of think I am not drinking REAL wine when I want a Moscato or Brachetto or even an “off dry” (new term for the wine ignorant-me!) Riesling. I find I can actually enjoy it! I have never actually drank desert wines so I don’t know how very sweet they are but the ones I named are sufficiently sweet for me. Again thanks for the new info in my wine vocab!

  • michelle
    October 18, 2013 9:17 pm

    My Hubby and I found this tonight after we found some Rieslings buried in our wine club collection. I thought they were identical except for the years, but Hubby noticed “off-dry” on one of the labels. Not knowing what that meant, the two of us Googled it to solve the mystery. This was the most helpful info we found and offered extra trivia for us. Thank you. Bummed that neither of our bottles have a sweet scale on them.

  • Scott
    December 5, 2013 10:50 pm

    Genesis,

    I wanted to thank you for jotting down this helpful info in such an easy to find and understand way. While I found it very helpful, I am also curious about my personal favorite wines and what your thoughts are. I started drinking wine about 5 years ago, and was solely focused on sweeter wines. First were dessert wines and Moscato d’Asti’s, and next was Prosecco. While reds remain a mystery to me, I have enjoyed expanding my knowledge a little bit on the white wine side of things. I no longer prefer wines quite as sweet as before, and wanted more off-dry options! I’ve never had a Chardonnay that I liked (way too buttery), but I like Chablis and they are related I think. I don’t mind Riesling and Pino Grigio, and I LOVE both Torrontes and Chenin Blanc, but don’t necessarily know what other options to go for.

    OK, I think that I have rambled enough! I wanted you to know enough about me preferences to talk about some other less known varieties. What are your thoughts?

    Thanks!

    Scott

  • Elizabeth H
    November 19, 2014 7:00 am

    It’s a good point, that sweetness and fruityness are confusable.

    I think I’ve generally confused dryness and acidity. So, there should be examples of wines that have high residual sugars and high acidity.

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  • Michael Blackman
    January 17, 2015 3:53 pm

    I did a google search and your quick explanation popped up. Thanks for the tutorial. I did not realize all the Red dinner wines are considered dry. It is the complexity and fruitiness that creates confusion and surprise at the table.. thanks

  • shervin suarez
    January 20, 2015 2:37 am

    how can you tell if a wine is dry or sweet base on the alcohol content or percentage that is written in the back of the wine…(sorry not very good in english) tnx!! 🙂

    • Tasty Vino
      April 9, 2015 3:46 am

      Your English is great! Normally sweeter wines have lower alcohol content (not to be confused with dessert wine which is a whole other topic.) But you’ll notice on sweeter wines like Rieslings, Chenin Blancs (Vouvray) or Moscatos that their alcohol content is lower – around 10-12% alcohol. This is different than Chardonnay or Sauv Blanc which is generally around 12.5-13.5% alcohol. So if you’re ever unsure about how fruit or dry tasting a wine is – look at the alcohol content. It’s not always 100% accurate but it’s a good indicator of what you’re potentially purchasing. The higher – the dryer. The lower – the sweeter. 🙂

      • Shelama Leesen
        June 22, 2015 6:17 pm

        As only a rare drinker of wine I’ve always been confused about what the “dry” meant, and assumed in one way or another it must be related to an opposite concept of “wet” as it relates to water. And I’m a person for whom things like this need to “make sense.”

        Your site now seems to confirm the connection that I thought I’d recently heard as I caught the tail-end of a radio program…

        …The basic idea is that wine starts out as grapes with their sugar and water and no alcohol. As the sugar is converted to alcohol, the sugar content goes down (becoming less sweet) and the alcohol content goes up. Which necessarily also means that the water content goes down…. the wine (or wine-to-be), as it is becoming less sugary, is literally “drying” out… losing water relative to the increasing alcohol.

        Whether or not that’s really involved in how the term “dry” arose, it makes sense to me. So there you go. As it turns out, from your comment above, there’s really not much difference in the alcohol (and therefore the water) content:

        — “wet”/sweet wine around 10-12% alcohol -> more water (wet)
        — dry wine: 12.5-13.5% alcohol -> less water (dry)

      • Alma Sullo
        August 25, 2016 1:39 am

        Thank you so much for giving a simple, common sense answer to a question so many of us have been asking for quite a while. I can’t count the times someone has offered me a wine saying, “you’ll love this” and been furious when I say it taste like mold or vinegar. What’s very helpful for me is your advice about the alcohol content. Now I have a pretty good indicator of what I’m looking for. Especially since my doctor wants me to start drinking 8 ounces of wine a day, I can finally find one that actually tastes good to me. Many Thanks.

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  • Regina Floyd
    April 9, 2015 3:23 am

    Thank you!!! this was very helpful. I knew I preferred Riesling , White Zin and Moscato but didn’t realize its because I prefer a sweeter wine. Thanks for clearing it up for me

  • Marla Rosner
    January 6, 2016 12:15 am

    Loved this! Great explanations of the nuances related to sweet and dry definitions in wine-speak. Not easy to explain!

  • Alicia
    September 27, 2016 11:54 am

    Very helpful and intrested information, especially for a beginner. At first i only tried red wine and didnt love or hare it but than was introduced to Dessert wine and was in total shock at the differance but than found my love in Riseling, not very sweet and not semi, in between. The percentage explntiin helps a lot and its very nive to know more bout your wine and learn about wht your taste buds enjoy.

    Thank you

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