Dry vs. Sweet Wine: A guide to choosing the best wine

If you have been in a wine store for the first time, then you know how tricky it is to pick a good wine. Do you go for the dry or sweet wine? You get confused by the different types of wine with different color shades with labels indicating whether they are sweet or dry wine. The question is what makes the difference between the sweet and dry wines to influence your buying decision?

Anyone with no wine knowledge will definitely pick the sweet wine. Why? Because anything sweet is good and dry… it’s just that dry! What defines both wines is the residual sugar or lack of it after the fermentation process. This is not rocket science. Other factors that determine the level of wine sweetness in a glass of wine are acidity, tannins, and alcohol content.

Dry Vs Sweet Wines

What constitutes a dry wine? For a wine to be considered dry, it has to have less than 1% residual sugar. A wine that has less than 0.5% residual sugar is said to be ‘bone dry’ meaning that it has been stripped of its residual sugar. You can hardly detect this level of sugar with your taste buds. On the other hand,  sweet wine has a relatively higher residual sugar of above 20 percent.

The winemaking process is all about picking grapes and later pressing them to produce juice. What follows is fermentation where sugar from the grapefruits turns the juice into wine. Another factor influencing the fate of sweet or dry wine is the type of grapes used or the fermentation level reached to reduce or increase the sugar level. During fermentation, a microorganism called yeast facilitates the process of turning sugar into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol.

Sweet or Dry: All Boils Down to Fermentation

The greatest determinant of sweet or dry wine is the length of time going into fermenting the grape juice. To understand this concept better, here is how sweet or dry wine is made.

  • The amount of sugar in grapefruit increases when they ripe. Ripe grapes produce sweet wines, especially those grown in warmer regions. Cooler areas produce grapes used to make dry wines.
  • Another process that boosts the sugar levels in grapes is when they are sun-dried after harvesting. Sugar gets concentrated when exposed to heat. This produces sweet wine popular for producing dessert wine. When grapes are frozen while still in their vines before they are harvested, these also become concentrated with sugar and thus are used to make sweet wine.
  • Sweet wine is also made sweet by adding sugar into the grape juice before fermentation.
  • By regulating fermentation, wine is made sweet. When the fermentation process is cut short, the sugar level remains high. If you want to make wine dry, fermentation should go on for a longer period. Fermentation turns sugar into alcohol. The lower the sugar levels the higher the alcohol content and this is what makes the wine dry.

The LCBO Sugar Code

Although low sugar levels make a dry wine, it doesn’t need any repetition that the two wines are the opposite of each other. It is sort of a spectrum where it runs from dry, off-dry, medium-dry, medium, medium sweet, to sweet. What determines this criterion is the LCBO sugar Code which is used to measure the amount of residual sugar in wines. Basically the code ranges from very dry (0) to very sweet (30). In simple terms, 0 is very dry which is common in wines with up to .50% residual sugar, 1-2 is dry, 3-6 is medium also defined as semi-dry or semi-sweet or off-dry. 7 and above is regarded as sweet.

Other Factors of Perception (Sweet or dry)

Back then when I wasn’t so much into wine tasting I had trouble interpreting between the fruit-styled wine and sweet wine. This was particularly so with the case of sweet red wine brands and white wine. However, as time went by, I got hung off it and now can showcase a clear picture:

  • Tannins: From a wine perspective, tannins are the content of wine which includes grape skin, stems, and seeds. To understand tannin better, I would say it is the dry out sensation felt when the protein in our saliva clings to tannin. Usually different persons will have different opinions regarding wines tannins. However, the more the tannins, the dryer the wine it will be.
  • Acidity: The acidity part of wine is most of the times mistaken for tannin. Acidity is the flavor rather than what you feel in the mouth. High levels of acidity are found in immature grapes. More acidity makes the wine dry.
  • Alcohol: As we’ve already established, alcohol is created from sugar when it undergoes the fermentation process. This means that the longer it is left to ferment, the higher the alcohol content.

From these three factors, alcohol is the only factor that can influence our decision of whether the wine is put into the sweet or dry category.

Another study confirms that red wine can be good for your health — if it’s dry and consumed in moderation. But before you go reaching for a bottle of red, do you know the difference between dry and sweet? That can be confusing, particularly when a wine is fruity.

The Difference Between Dry and Sweet Wine

It’s important to realize that before the juice from grapes becomes wine, it contains natural sugar from the fruit grown on the vine. Without the sugar, the juice couldn’t become wine because it’s the sugar that turns into alcohol during the fermentation process. A wine is considered sweet when it contains a certain amount of residual sugar, or sugar that’s left over after fermentation.

Some wines that fall below the 10g of residual sugar line can taste sweet, though, and it’s often because of their fruitiness.

Fruity Doesn’t Equal Sweet

Have you ever heard someone describe a wine as “fruit forward”? Basically that means a fruit flavor other than grape is dominant when you first taste the wine. It could be the black cherry flavor that you’ll often taste in a merlot or the taste of blackberry in a zinfandel. Neither of those wines contain any fruit other than grapes, yet other fruit flavors come through, and the wines can be described as fruity. Most bottles of merlot and zinfandel are dry because they contain little residual sugar. Other descriptors that are used for wines that can be confused with sweet are “jammy” or “juicy.”

The researchers saw the most benefit when dry red wine was paired with a Mediterranean-style dinner. That’s good news because dry red wines are very food-friendly. The reds you would usually choose to drink with a meal are the ones the study says should be consumed for the benefits. I’m sure there was a beautiful moment when the wine gods made this so, but I’m not privy to that secret. I’m familiar with dry red wines, though, so I can point you to some easy-to-find dry reds that I enjoy.

  • Cabernet sauvignon: Try Noble Vines 337.
  • Merlot: Try Bonterra Merlot.
  • Malbec: Try Eagles Rock Malbec.
  • Carmenere: Try Natura Camenere.
  • Grenache/Garnacha: Try Garnacha de Fuego.
  • Zinfandel: Try Bonterra Zinfandel.
  • Sangiovese: Try Avignonesi Vino Nobile.
  • Pinot Blanc
  • Pinot Noir
  • Malbec
  • Merlot
  • Tempranillo
  • Sangiovese
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Pinot Grigio
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Chardonnay
Other dry reds include syrah, petite sirah, tempranillo and pinot noir.

If you still need some guidance when you walk into a wine store, just ask. There are no stupid questions when it comes to wine, and those who work in a wine store are happy to help you pick out the right wine.

Examples of Classic Sweet and Dry Wines:

Any wine can be sweet or dry. Whether it is Riesling or Cabernet. The winemaker decides the wine sweetness. However, some prominent varietal wines sometimes share the same sweetness levels. Here is the list of some varietal wines that are popularly regarded as sweet or dry wine.

Examples of Sweet Wines

  • Tokaji
  • Sauternes
  • Port
  • Riesling
  • Icewine/Eiswein
  • Vouvray
  • Moscato


I believe you have expanded your wine knowledge regarding the dry wine vs sweet wine. Although, it wasn’t so hard defining them. The only hard thing would be getting the sugar content of wine since it is rarely found on the wine label. You will only know the type of wine you are purchasing by semi-dry wine, semi-sweet wine, or sweet/dessert wine which is displayed on the label. Additionally, Sweeter wines are also labeled as ice wine or late harvest.

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