How Can You Tell If a Wine Is Sweet or Dry?

It's not obvious, so we asked sommeliers for tips on making this distinction—before and after you sip.

Woman pouring wine in glass.
Photo: Guido Mieth / GETTY IMAGES

Whether you are picking out a bottle of wine to pair with a cheese plate or a fish entrée, to complement a slice of dessert, or simply to sip on at the end of the day, you likely know if you want a wine that is sweet or dry. Everyone has a preference—but do you know what makes some wines sweeter and others drier? It actually comes down to how the wine is made.

"During the fermentation process, yeast eats the sugars from the fruit and produces alcohol—if you allow the yeast to eat all the sugars, the wine will be fermented dry," says André Hueston Mack, a sommelier, winemaker, and designer. "If the producer chooses to make a sweet wine, they will stop the fermentation early so there are some sugars left, thus producing a sweet wine."

However, this is where things can get confusing, notes Mack, since not all sweet wines actually say "sweet" on the label (and not every dry wine is marked as such, either). We asked sommeliers to learn more—and find out the difference.

How to Tell If a Wine Is Sweet or Dry

Consider Sugar Content

Sugar content plays a role in determining whether a wine is sweet or dry. "The terms 'dryness' or 'sweetness' refer to how much residual sugar is leftover in a wine after fermentation," says Simi Grewal, sommelier and co-founder of DECANTsf. "Most wines we might drink on a daily basis are actually considered dry, even though sometimes they might taste 'sweet.'"

The reason? According to Grewal, the flavor profiles of some grapes might have a lot of ripe fruit notes—but that doesn't necessarily mean the wine contains high amounts of residual sugar.

Take Note of How Your Palate Reacts

Acidity can also help you determine the sweetness or dryness of a wine. Simply pay attention to how your palate reacts as you drink it. If you are sipping on a wine that is high in acidity, it will likely make you salivate—which often means it's a drier varietal. If you don't salivate, let's say, on a dry white wine, then it is likely high in alcohol, which some producers may add to make the acidity less "harsh" as you sip on it, says Grewal.

Sweeter wines will typically be low in alcohol content, but syrupy on the palate.

Stop by Your Local Wine Shop

If you don't have the opportunity to taste the wine before you buy, your best plan of action is to stop by a wine store where you can ask someone to help you select a bottle. Wine labels vary, so you might not always be able to discern where a wine will land on the dry-to-sweet spectrum just by reading some text.

For example, if you are shopping for Champagne, you will likely find the term "brut," meaning dry, or "extra-brut," meaning extra-dry. However, if you are shopping for prosecco, the term "extra-brut," means that it has "a little bit of sweetness," says Grewal. "Wine is such a massive industry with so many different producers. Really, it comes down to knowing the producer and knowing how they chose to make that wine." Ultimately, tapping an expert will help you fill in those blanks.

Sweet Wine, Explained

Don't get hung up on the terminology: "All of these terms—medium-dry/semi-sweet, medium-sweet, and sweet—are really just terms used by the producer," says Mack. "There are no collective legal guidelines that define those terms."

The wine's sugar content is ultimately the best way to determine its sweetness level—and the sweetest wines can have over 200 grams of residual sugar per liter. "These can be almost sticky and syrupy on the palate, and are also much lower in alcohol, generally below 8 or 9 percent ABV," says Grewal.

Sweet wines can also vary based on how they are produced. Mack explains that any wine labeled "late-harvest" will indicate sweetness. These are often considered dessert wines, since they are the highest in residual sugar and are noticeably sweet in flavor, too.

Common Types of Sweet Wine

  • Ice Wine: "Ice wine, for instance, is made from grapes grown in very cold climates, where frost will strike the grapes while they still hang on the vine, preserving and concentrating the grape's sugar content, while the water in the grape freezes," says Grewal. "This ultimately means that each grape can only produce a very small amount of very sweet juice, creating a wine that is extremely sweet, but also delicate in flavor."
  • Sauternes: Grewal explains that ice wine production is similar to that of Sauternes wines; these are made in Bordeaux, France. "The sugar is concentrated in grapes affected by botrytis, or the Noble Rot, which is a fungus that dehydrates the grapes while they are still on the vine," she says. "The Noble Rot occurs rarely, but it creates a distinctively tropical and divine wine that fetches very high prices."
  • Port: "Port wine, which hails from northern Portugal, is a fortified sweet wine, which means that it is buffed up by the addition of a neutral spirit," says Grewal. The neutral spirit is added during fermentation as part of the production process, which kills off remaining yeast in the wine. As a result, the residual sugar is preserved and boosts the wine's final alcohol content, thus making a robust sweet wine.

Dry Wine, Explained

First things first: "When speaking wine talk, 'dry' means a non-sweet wine, and 'off-dry' means the wine has sugar in it," says Mack. Since "dry wine" means that there is "no perceivable sugar on the palate," Grewal says that you won't really taste the sugar, as they typically have 5 grams per liter or below of residual sugar.

According to Grewal, this likely puts your typical sauvignon blanc or albariño into this category. "While it might seem tropical and sweet from the ripe melon or passionfruit notes, it actually finishes with lots of acidity and lightness on your palate, causing you to salivate and come back for more," says Grewal. "This is the thing about sugar and your taste buds—there actually has to be a lot of sugar present for your tongue and brain to really know that it's there."

As the sugar levels in wine increase, the wine becomes "off-dry;" examples include prosecco and riesling, which can include up to 12 grams per liter of residual sugar.

Common Types of Dry Wine

While there are distinct types of sweet wine, sommeliers explain that dry iterations are more complicated: Nearly every wine type could be considered dry if it doesn't have sugar or doesn't taste sweet. "Everything ranging from chardonnay to malbec or even Champagne—the majority are considered to be dry, meaning that the sugars have been fermented out," says Grewal.

Another point to consider: "Many people confuse the meaning of dry with the presence of tannins—that scratchy, sock-in-the-mouth feeling often left behind on your tongue from bold red wines, says Grewal. She notes that tannins don't actually have much to do with the wine's dryness; they simply come from the skin of the grape and are not a reflection of residual sugar content.

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