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What is the Difference Between Sweet and Dry Wine?

Kelsey Chesterfield

Although detecting the difference between sweet wines and dry wines may seem like it should be an easy task (one is sweet and one is not, right?), there’s actually more to it than that. But before we go any further, one distinction needs to be made! The wines that we feature in our Wine Clubs are always dry. Apologies go out to those who enjoy a sweet wine every now and again, but for club members that want to stay away from those wines, be assured that every wine of the month club shipment will only include dry wines!

So how is the sweetness or dryness of a wine measured? Well, both sweet and dry wines are defined by their levels of residual sugar (often referred to as "RS"). Residual sugar is the amount of sugar that is left in the wine after the fermentation process has been completed. This is measured by the amount of solids in a given volume of wine once fermentation is complete, or if making sweet dessert wines, after adding any additional sugars. Technically speaking, you can expect dry wines alcohol content to be in the 0.2% - 0.3% range, semi-sweet wines alcohol content to be between 1.0% - 5.0% and sweet dessert wines alcohol content to be between 5.0% - 15% on the Brix Scale.

Related: What is the Brix Scale?

Other factors such as acidity, tannins, and alcohol and can also effect the perception of what is sweet and what is dry, but it all comes down to the residual sugar. Here are some of the most common processes when creating a sweet wine:

1) Allowing the grapes to further mature on the vine, which creates a higher sugar level in the fruit and thus a higher level of residual sugar after fermentation.

2) Adding sugar to the juice to achieve the desired level of sweetness.

3) Stopping the fermentation process before it has finished its cycle.

4) Conversely to #1, picking the fruit before they have fully matured and then drying the grapes in the sun to produce more sweetness.

The difficulty is that, while stating the alcohol content is required, the sugar content information is rarely - if ever - on the wine label. So how do you know what type of wine you're purchasing? The majority of wines that are sweet will have the distinction semi-dry, semi-sweet, or sweet/dessert wine on the label. Additionally, wines can be labeled as late harvest or ice wine, which is also a sign that the wine will be on the sweeter side.

You may be thinking, "ok, the wine is technically 'dry', but it still tastes sweet to me..." and there are a few characteristics of a dry wine that can influence your perceived sweetness. A common misinterpretation is mistaking a wine's fruitiness for sweetness, when in fact you are experiencing a "fruit-forward" or expressive wine that has a lot of flavors you would normally associate with sweet fruit (ie. plum, stone fruit, blackberries, etc.). A way to differentiate if a wine that is supposed to be dry but you think still may have some residual sugar, is to look at the tasting notes. Wines that are described as fruity, extract-y, chocolaty, concentrated, and/or rich can all be descriptors for dry wines.

But be assured that we feature only dry wines in our 6 wine of the month clubs! If you open a bottle that has some perceived sweetness, make sure to read the tasting notes and see if what you're tasting is actually fruit or a concentration of flavors.

Shop all of our dry wines in our Wine Store, or sign up for one of our wine clubs and receive fantastic wines - hassle-free!