What is a Dry White Wine vs. a Sweet White Wine?
You may have heard the terms ‘dry’ and ‘sweet’ used to describe white wines. But what exactly do these terms mean? What amount of sugar in wine constitutes a ‘dry’ wine and how sweet is sweet wine?
Generally, a dry wine is a wine with less than 10 grams of residual sugar per liter and a sweet wine is a wine with more than 30 grams or residual sugar. Though there are a lot of wines that fall in between, and they are typically referred to as ‘off-dry’ which we’ll explain more about later in this post.
What is residual sugar in wine?
Residual sugar is the natural grape sugar left over in a wine, after the yeast has done its job during fermentation, eating away at the sugars in the wine, to create alcohol. There is always some sugar left in wine after fermentation unless a winemaker purposely ferments a wine to the point where it’s utterly bone dry and has 0 residual sugar left, which changes the taste and feel of a wine, as well as the alcohol level.
While it may be popular to look for ‘low sugar’ or ‘sugar-free’ wine, wine is simply not a naturally sugar free beverage and most of the best wines in the world will never (and should never) be completely free of any naturally occurring sugars.
However, most dry white wines have very little sugar and very few calories when compared to popular cocktails that use sweet ingredients. A restaurant-sized glass of wine (6 oz), for instance, has about 150 calories on average (this wouldn’t be true for a sweet wine, but is true for most dry wines which are most common). Whereas, popular cocktails such as Moscow mules, margaritas, or mojitos are usually between 200-300 calories per cocktail and blended drinks such as daiquiris can get as high as 500-900 calories.
Is Red or White Wine Sweeter?
Many people are surprised to learn that some red wines can have more sugar than the average dry white wine. How many grams of sugar a wine has doesn't have to do with the color, it has more to do with the grape, the style and body of the wine.
A light-bodied dry white wine, for instance, can have almost no residual sugar, and still be fruity and enjoyable to drink. Whereas, a full-bodied red wine wouldn't taste very good if it was allowed to ferment to the extent that the sugar was almost 0. The best wines are wines where all of the components are in balance with each other. When acidity, sugar, alcohol, and oak are all in balance, a wine is pleasant and easy to drink. When a wine isn’t balanced, it’s common to perceive one or more of these elements standing out much more strongly than the others (such as alcohol or oak).
It’s also important to remember that the more sugar is allowed to be converted into alcohol, the more highly alcoholic a wine becomes. This is why some off-dry wines (such as Gewürztraminers, Moscatos, etc.) are lower in alcohol.
How Much Residual Sugar Do Most White Wines Have?
Most quality, still, white wines that are normally dry after fermentation (i.e. wines not mass produced and riddled with additives or sweeteners such as the stuff on the supermarket shelf with fun critters on the label) contain between 3 to 7 grams of sugar.
Most white wines on restaurant lists and wine shop shelves are dry, since that’s what the majority of consumers prefer now (in contrast to the past, where people all over the world drank much sweeter wines for centuries). A few common examples of dry white wines include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris.
When it comes to determining how much residual sugar makes sense in a wine, it doesn’t really come down to making a decision about how much sugar a wine should have. It comes down to the fermentation process, and when a wine is ready. There are some white wines that will taste and feel very dry but will contain a slightly higher amount of residual sugar (on the dry/sugar scale), simply due to other factors (the varietal, the body, the naturally occurring acid levels, etc). If you kept fermenting them, they would end up too high in alcohol and not very pleasant to drink.
Then, there are other white wines which can ferment to the point where there’s almost no natural sugar left in the wine, and still be pleasant, drinkable, and not too high in alcohol. These are typically wines made from grapes that have naturally low sugars and produce very light-bodied, lean wines such as Muscadet and Grüner Veltliner.
If a wine is perfectly balanced (i.e. the acidity, fruit, body, and alcohol are all perfectly balanced and in sync), most winemakers who make quality, fine wines, will not try to force that wine to keep fermenting to get the sugars lower. This would completely change the taste, feel, and character of a wine.
In most cases, if a winemaker wants to produce wines that have no sugar left over after fermentation, but that also aren’t too high in alcohol, they’d need to pick the grapes before they are completely ripe. However this method doesn't allow them to make the best wine possible from those grapes.
‘Sugar Free’ or ‘Low Sugar’ Wine Brands
There are certainly larger, commercial wine brands who market their wines as ‘clean’ or ‘sugar-free’. These companies are not really seeking to produce great wines, they are attempting to produce a low calorie alcoholic beverage that can take the place of a typical wine. They can get away with this due to their company's and their customers’ desires to live a low-sugar or low-calorie lifestyle, yet still feel like they are able to indulge in drinking wine.
There is nothing wrong with drinking these ‘wines’ and enjoying them, but this kind of beverage is more of a product than a fine wine. You don’t taste the vineyard or the region in it. You could create it anywhere in the world and it would taste the same.
If you are a true wine lover who wants to continue consuming good wine, you don’t have to buy commercially produced ‘low sugar’ wine beverages. You can simply opt for naturally dryer wines, and try not to consume wine in excessive quantities (which is a good practice to adhere to in any case).
How do you know if a wine is dry or sweet when you pick a wine out at the store?
Large wine companies, as well as small winery producers, are not required to (and do not) list sugar content for most of their wines.
However, if you are seeking dry wines (wines with lower grams of residual sugar per liter) there are a few things you can keep in mind while shopping at your local store.
A good rule of thumb to follow is:
Stay away from cheap, mass or commercially-produced wines. These are generally the wines that contain the most unnatural additives -- including sugar, which in many cases is not the naturally-occuring residual sugar. Sugar can also be added to a wine to enhance the taste and mouthfeel of the wine after fermentation has been completed.
Most fine, red and white wines on store shelves that are not cheap or mass-produced are dry. If a wine is sweet it will typically be in a sweet wine section, though it’s good to read the bottle and the description of the wine to make sure. Sweeter wines will typically include descriptions that make it clear you can expect a slightly sweeter wine.
There are also some ‘off-dry’ or sweet wines that are simply traditionally sweeter wines, meaning that if you see these varieties or wines, they will almost always (or very likely) be sweet. We’ve listed some examples of these below under the ‘What are the best semi-sweet wines?’ heading.
What does ‘off dry’ wine mean?
Off-dry = slightly sweet wines that have between 10-35 grams of residual sugar per liter.
Off-dry wines aren’t super syrupy-sweet, but instead they often include light, refreshing white wines that are served as an apéritif, or alongside cheeses. They generally have a pretty high level of acidity, which adds to the refreshing quality (bright acidity + some sweetness = mouthwatering).
What are the best semi-sweet wines?
Some of the best or most traditional off-dry or semi-sweet white wines include: Muscat (called Moscato in Italy), Vouvray (Chenin Blanc from the Loire region, which is normally off-dry but you can also find dry versions labeled ‘sec’), Gewürztraminer (most often it’s off-dry, but you can also find dry Gewürztraminers), and Riesling (again, you can find dry Rieslings, but most you’ll find will lean more towards off-dry).
What qualifies as ‘sweet’?
Sweet wines, or dessert wines, can range widely between 35 to 220 grams of sugar per liter, with the sweetest wines on this scale being wines such as Sauternes and ice wines.
Traditionally sweet white wines/dessert white wines include: late harvest Riesling (the most famous are from Alsace, France or Germany), Sauternes (a French sweet white wine), Vin Santo (an Italian white dessert wine), Tokaji Aszú/Tokay (a Hungarian white dessert wine), ice wines, and other late-harvest wines (there are many made in the U.S. using a wide variety of both white and red grapes).