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What makes a wine dry?

Erin O'Reilly - Certified Specialist of Wine

You've heard the term ‘dry wine’, or maybe even 'off-dry', and certainly 'sweet' wine makes sense even to someone who doesn't drink wine. But what does a dry wine actually mean? Here’s what you need to know.

a winemaker testing wine from a barrel

What Makes Wine Dry?

Wine is a liquid, so at first blush calling it ‘dry’ doesn't really make sense. But the term actually refers to the sweetness level of the wine.

A wine is considered dry if it has no perceptible sweetness in it. This means that you as a wine drinker shouldn’t be able to taste any sugar in the wine.

Wine is made by adding yeast to grape juice. The yeast consumes the grape juice sugar and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide as a by-product through the process of fermentation. Sometimes the yeast doesn’t convert all of the grape juice into alcohol, leaving behind some sweetness, called Residual Sugar (or 'RS' for short).

There are actually several categories of dryness, from driest to sweetest, they are:

  • Dry
  • Off-dry
  • Sweet

Most experienced wine drinkers can taste sweetness, or residual sugar, in wine at a very low threshold of around 4 grams of sugar per liter of wine. Anything below this level is technically considered dry. Most casual drinkers of wine won't be able to tell there's residual sugar until around 10 grams of sugar per liter of wine. At this level, the wine is technically off-dry.

This means that what you consider a dry wine may be different than what another drinker does.

someone holding a glass of red wine

Why would a ‘dry’ table wine have sugar in it?

Many types of dry wine can have residual sugar that makes them off-dry - Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah – pick your wine grape, and you can find an off-dry version of it. Wines can have residual sugar that you don’t immediately detect.

A little sugar in wine can add to the mouthfeel and augment the wine’s body. In full-bodied wines with rich fruit, this can improve the wine’s overall balance.

Mainstream wine labels from national brands that you find in your local grocery store or liquor shop often have perceptible sweetness in them, even though they may be considered dry table wines. These wines are crafted for drinkers who are new to wine, or who don't drink wine regularly. A little sweetness, especially in a dry red wine, can help balance out tannin and acid, which can be off-putting to newbies.

A woman holding a glass of white wine

How to tell if my ‘dry wine’ is actually sweet?

Even experienced tasters can get tripped up on levels of residual sugar in a wine. Intense fruitiness can be confused for sweetness.

A zesty Sauvignon Blanc or aromatic Grüner Veltliner may seem sweet when you take a sip, but the wine may actually be dry.

A good experiment to test for wine sweetness is to hold your nose closed while drinking the wine. Sweetness is one of the five taste receptors, and you should be able to taste sweetness in your wine even with your nose closed.

Of course, you can always check the producer’s website for technical notes about your wine. They list geeky wine facts like harvest dates, fermentation methods, and, typically, any information about residual sugar. After checking a few bottles, you’ll get a sense of your sweetness detection threshold and soon be picking out the difference between dry and off-dry wines.

Here at Gold Medal Wine Club, we make a point to exclusively feature dry wines, so you never need to worry about receiving something sweet in your shipments. This doesn't mean you won't get a distinct variety of flavors, however! All of our selections have unique and exciting tasting profiles that make each shipment a new experience!

Erin O'Reilly Author Bio Image Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly, Certified Specialist of Wine, is a wine writer and educator. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers crafting wines that transcend time.