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Sweet vs. Dry

By Gianpaolo Paterlini

Sweet and dry are two of the most commonly used words to describe wine, yet they are also near the top of the list when it comes to misuse. We’re here to clarify the matter by explaining their many definitions and how to best use them to convince your wine enthusiast friends you know what you’re talking about!

What is Sweet?

Sweet is a term everyone is familiar with regardless of their interest in wine. From a technical standpoint, sweet implies that a wine has palpable residual sugar. Virtually every wine has some amount of residual sugar left over from fermentation.

Alcoholic fermentation

Alcoholic fermentation is a process in wine making, in which yeast consumes sugar and turns it into CO2 and alcohol. The yeast strains are natural organisms, so they are naturally imperfect, and sometimes they leave a small amount of residual sugar in a wine, which is measured in grams per liter. The winemaker can also choose to leave residual sugar in a wine, whether the goal is to balance a wine’s high acidity with sugar (this is very common in Champagne) or to make a properly sweet dessert wine. This can be managed by manipulating the temperature of the cellar. If conditions get cold enough, the yeast go dormant and stop consuming sugar. Alternatively, if the level of alcohol gets very high (around 17-18% ABV), the yeast can no longer do their job and fermentation stops.

In terms of the amount of residual sugar, 1-2 grams per liter is a level that many tasters can start to perceive sweetness (0-1 is generally considered dry). This aspect of sweetness is pretty easy to understand, as there is very little gray area, but flavor is more subjective and makes things much more complicated.

Fruity vs. Sweet

We have probably all tasted wine that has recognizable fruit flavors, such as grapefruit and other citrus in Sauvignon Blanc, or cassis and dark berry in Cabernet Sauvignon. One’s impulse is understandably to call these wines sweet, but this is where many wine drinkers (both wine beginners and wine enthusiasts) get confused. A dry wine, one with less than 1 gram of residual sugar, can have sweet flavors. And it’s even ok to describe these flavors as being sweet. For example, ‘this Cabernet combines sweet black fruit and spicy oak flavors’ is a great way to talk about a Napa Cab, but to say ‘this Cabernet is so sweet’ would be incorrect.

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What is Dry?

As you’ve probably gathered by now, dry is the opposite of sweet. A wine that has been fermented dry contains less than 1 gram of residual sugar, and this counts for the majority of the wine we drink on a daily basis. But dry can also be used as a descriptor of flavor, and just like with residual sugar, it is the opposite of sweet. Dry is often used to describe non-fruit flavors in a wine, including herbs, spices, forest floor, dirt, minerality, and salinity. Coincidentally, these flavors are usually combined with a texture.

While the sugar in a wine is the lone factor used to determine sweetness – acidity, tannins, and alcohol can each contribute to the way we perceive a wine by amplifying its flavors.

1. Acidity

For instance, Chablis is a very dry white wine made with Chardonnay wine grapes in the north of France. The vines are planted on chalk and limestone soils and this conveys a sense of minerality to the wine. Because the region is relatively cold, the grapes get less ripe, and therefore their flavors are less fruity. Wines from vinyards in cool climates also have relatively high acidity, which makes a wine feel drier. The sensation of salivating after tasting a Chablis accentuates the wine’s minerality and makes it taste very dry, even if it might have some residual sugar. Alternatively, Riesling is famous for its sweet flavors of flowers and fruits, but the finished wine is not always sweet. In Austria, most Riesling is made dry, so it is common to hear descriptors like ‘sweetly perfumed’ or ‘succulent peach’ used to describe a with no residual sugar.

2. Tannins

Rioja is one of Spain’s most famous red wines and features the Tempranillo grape, which is not thought of as a particularly fruity variety. Many of the best-known wines from Rioja are vinified in American oak, which is notorious for its strong flavor and dry tannins. The combination of Tempranillo naturally earthy, savory flavors and American oak can minimize the perception of fruit and literally dry your mouth out at the same time. On the other hand, a variety with less tannin that is vinified in neutral oak, such as Bedrock’s Old Vine Zinfandel, will allow the flavor of fruit to take center stage, thus making the wine taste sweeter.

3. Alcohol

Finally, wine alcohol content can also make a wine feel drier. While table wine rarely rises above 16% ABV, this level of alcohol can still produce a sensation of heat more commonly experienced when drinking spirits. In the same way a shot of Bourbon might feel sweet in your mouth but leave a drying sensation after you swallow, the right amount of alcohol can make a sweet wine taste dry. Tawny Port is a fascinating example of a wine whose alcohol makes it feel less sweet. Most Tawny Ports clock in around 100 grams of residual sugar per liter, which should taste very, very sweet. But Port is fortified, meaning a neutral spirit is added to the wine to raise its ABV to 20%. This level of alcohol provides a palpable heat, so while Tawny Port still tastes sweet, the alcohol makes it taste much drier than it really is.

Which wines are dry? Which wines are sweet?

Some common examples of wines that are dry both in terms of residual sugar and in flavor profile include French whites like Muscadet and Chablis, and Italian reds like Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Aglianico. On the other hand, wines that often have a small amount of residual sugar and offer flavors of sweet fruit include German Riesling (as long as it doesn’t say Trocken!), French Chenin Blanc from Vouvray that doesn’t say Sec, Italian Amarone della Valpolicella, and California wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Another that might surprise you is sparkling wine. Almost all sparkling wine includes some added sugar, and despite the label saying Brut, many examples of Champagne and Prosecco contain relatively high levels of residual sugar.

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How to Tell the Difference

Now that we have covered most of the variables that contribute to how we taste sweetness and dryness in a wine, how do you actually distinguish the difference?

As we mentioned earlier, the vast majority of wine we drink on a daily basis is considered dry, and it is pretty easy to differentiate these from classic dessert wines. But as you develop your palate, you will eventually encounter ‘dry’ wines that display palpable residual sugar.

Next time you taste a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne or Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, pay attention to the aftertaste both on your lips and in your mouth. If your lips are a little sticky or you notice a light coating in your mouth, that is a likely sign that the wine contains a notable level of residual sugar. And it’s OK if you like that. Sweetness isn’t always good or bad. There is a time and a place for most wines.

Rather than tell you what not to drink, we’re just here to help you understand wine and develop a vocabulary to describe what you do and don’t like. The more accurately you can describe the style of wine you like, the better we are at helping you to find that perfect bottle!

If you have unanswered wine questions, would like a virtual wine tasting, or need help choosing a wine, schedule a free consultation with one of our somms here.

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