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.
Let’s first discuss DRY wines.
Most common table wines that people would normally drink with their dinner have little to zero residual sugar in them. This includes:
• Cabernet Sauvignon
• Pinot Noir
• Cabernet Franc
• Syrah/Shiraz (same grape)
• Pinot Grigio
• Sauvignon Blanc
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 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):
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.
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.
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
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.