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Is That Wine Sweet or Dry?

It’s one of the most-asked questions in wine — and here are some answers

Jeff Siegel By June 3, 2021
The illustration shows a pair of scales in the shape of a corkscrew weighing a glass on either side. Each glass has a fruit in it.
Illustrations by Marina Anselmi.

Clara Klein, the lead sommelier at Boulder’s Sunday Vinyl restaurant, says she gets the request all the time: “I don’t like sweet wine — what can I drink that is dry?”

“What they don’t understand, and what we need to do a better job educating wine drinkers about, is the difference between sweet and fruity,” says Klein. “They tell me they don’t like sweet, but they confuse that with fruity. And that’s far from the same thing.”

Clara Klein. Photo courtesy of Joni Schrantz.

This age-old wine conundrum seems more confusing than ever these days. That’s because sweet wines, like some red blends and Moscato, are frowned on by a new generation of wine drinkers in the same way their parents and grandparents dismissed oh-so-syrupy white Zinfandel. In addition, younger wine drinkers have been taught that added sugar is a health risk; many consider sugar levels in wine to be on par with soft drinks (it’s not).

They also see sweetness where it doesn’t exist.

Fruitiness isn’t sweetness

Many wines sold in the U.S. are dry, where “dry” is defined as the absence of sweetness, regardless of how fruity it smells or tastes. Or, for those who prefer math, wines start tasting sweet at about 8 grams of sugar per liter, or less than two teaspoons of sugar per bottle, and most U.S. wines have less than that — often, as little as half of that.

The confusion comes from the way the brain interprets fruitiness. “I run into that all the time with our tasting room employees,” says Jon McPherson, the master winemaker at South Coast Winery in Temecula, California. “They smell the wine, and they say they can smell the sweetness. But sugar doesn’t have an aroma. What they’re smelling is the fruit.”

And that revolves around the fruit flavors. There has long been extensive sensory research in how people interpret the aromas and flavors in wine, and the subject has spawned any number of doctoral dissertations. First, people use fruit comparisons because it’s something everyone understands. Second, the brain is accustomed to equating fruitiness with sweetness, like in jams and pies. No one thinks that an apple is necessarily sweet.

But an apple pie is.

Hence, when someone smells or tastes apples in Chardonnay or strawberries in rosé, they assume it’s sweet because apple pie and strawberry jam is sweet. But neither wine is sweet. Typically, the rosé will have less than 4 grams of sugar per liter. That’s bone dry, by any definition, even if the brain insists it “tastes” sweet.      

Klein says she tells customers to notice how the wine “finishes” dry — that is, to notice that there is no fruit flavor when they swallow. One of the telltale signs of a sweet wine is when sugar can still be tasted upon swallowing.

Another way to explain the difference? Consider a glass of plain iced tea. That’s dry, with no sweetness. Add lemon juice to the tea, and it becomes fruity, but still dry. Now add sugar to the iced tea with lemon, and it becomes fruity and sweet. The principle is similar with wine.

Spot the difference

The illutsration compares the amount of sugar in 5 oz of soda, orange juice, white wine and red wine, showing that the soda has more than 15 teaspoons of sugar, compared to less than one teaspoon in each glass of wine.

Five ounces of soda has more than 15g of sugar, which is nearly four teaspoons’ worth, compared to a third of one teaspoon in 5 oz of dry white wine, or less than a quarter of a teaspoon in 5 oz of a typical dry red wine. Illustrations by Marina Anselmi.

There are, indeed, some sweeter wine styles that are popular: one standard glass of Moscato can have the equivalent of six teaspoons of sugar in it. Many popular red blends and mass-market red wines also have high levels of residual sugar but, unfortunately, won’t have the sugar content listed on the label.

But there is one helpful way to navigate the wine aisle — by alcohol content, which will be listed on the bottle. During the winemaking process, the sugar in the grape juice is converted to alcohol. This means that the higher the alcohol, the drier the wine. Low alcohol, starting at less than 12 percent, often signifies a sweeter wine.

One thing to remember is that the sweetness level says nothing about the quality of the wine. Indeed, some of the world’s most sought-after wines and expensive wines are the rare ice wines of Germany and Canada, or the Sauternes of France, all of which are both sweet and luscious.

When these wines are on the table, even the most die-hard dry wine drinker is in for a treat.