I used to work at a French wine bar where we had a dry Riesling on the menu. All the time, I would hear customers say, “This one is dry even if it’s a Riesling? Is that a typo?”
Wine drinkers want to know with confidence whether a wine will be sweet or dry before tasting it. But how can you really tell? First, you have to understand how wines become sweet.
Wine Sweetness is Determined by Three Things
1. The sugar level of the berries at harvest.
Think of the sugar level in the berries at harvest as the limiting factor for sweetness. Unless the winemaker is chaptalizing (a fancy term for adding sugar to the wine tank before or during fermentation, which is outlawed in many places) or using sugary, color-correcting additives, the amount of residual sugar in the wine will be limited by the sugar level in the grape juice.
But, still, if the yeasts convert all of this sugar into alcohol, the wine will be dry. This brings us to number 2…
2. When and if the winemaker stops fermentation before it is complete.
One classic method for making sweet wine is by stopping fermentation before all of the sugar has turned into alcohol. If fermentation is allowed to continue unimpeded, the yeasts will consume all of the sugar in the tank and turn it into alcohol. Thus, the wine will be dry; there will be no residual sugar. If fermentation is stopped (by adding sulfur, dropping the temperature of the tank, or adding a spirit to kill the yeast), sugar will remain in the wine.
3. Sugary additives, if used.
By sugary additives, I mean sweet grape juice or color-correcting syrups. An example of the former method is the German wine “Sussreserve,” which is made by adding sweet grape juice to still white wine in order to increase its sugar content without increasing its alcohol percentage.
In other instances, thick, deeply pigmented color and flavor correcting syrups are sometimes added to wines post-fermentation. But because ingredients are not required on wine bottles, it’s hard to say if the wine will have them. The best rule of thumb is to assume that big brand wines under $10 like Barefoot, Yellowtail, Cupcake, and Sutter Home use these additives in order to standardize their production from one year to the next.
Keeping that in mind, here is a myth-busting list of some common sweetness indicators.
Dark wines are sweeter: FALSE
Color in wine comes from soaking the juice or wine with the grape skins, which draws out color pigments from the skins. If color indicated sweetness, then all red wines would be sweet and all white wines would be dry.
The reason we associate dark color and sweetness is that cheap red or rosé wines often contain Mega Purple. This syrup increases their roundness, covers up any vegetal aromas, and increases the wine’s sweetness. It’s a marketing tactic, and unfortunately, it’s taught an entire generation of new wine drinkers that dark wines (and particularly dark rosés) are all going to be sweet.
If you don’t trust me, try Tavel rosé from the south of France. It is a dark pink color, which comes from a long skin maceration time of red grapes. This style is much more deep and tannic than most rosés, but there is nothing about its color that indicates sweetness; these wines are dry.
Fruity and floral aromas mean the wine will be sweet: FALSE
If a wine smells fruity, will it be sweet? Not necessarily. A wine can smell like pineapples and be bone dry. If a wine smells floral, will it be sweet? Not necessarily. These “aromatic” wines can be made sweet or dry. Aromas and sweetness are independent of each other.
Sweetness depends on grape variety: SOMEWHAT
Many people believe that Muscat (Muscato) or Riesling are inherently sweet wines. This is not true. Any grape variety can be made into a dry wine by fermenting all of the sugar into alcohol. I have tasted plenty of dry Muscats and Rieslings.
But it is true that Muscat and Riesling are often made in a sweet style. It is not wrong to associate these wines with sweet styles, but it is wrong to think that the wines are sweet because of the grape variety. They are sweet because of a winemaking choice. Other grapes that are often made into sweet wine include Gewürztraminer, Semillon, and Chenin Blanc.
Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are almost used to make dry wines. Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, particularly with low-priced, mass-produced wines. Yellow Tail Merlot is at 8.4 g/L sugar, which is right on the cusp of being called an off-dry (slightly sweet) wine, which starts at 9 g/L.
You can tell if the wine is sweet from the label: TRUE
Wine labels are one of the surest ways you can tell if the wine will be sweet.
- Brut Nature: 0–3 g/L (also called Brut Zero, meaning no sugar added)
- Extra Brut: 0–6 g/L
- Brut: 0–12 g/L
- Extra Dry: 12–17 g/L
- Dry: 17–32 g/L
- Demi-Sec: 32–50 g/L
- Doux: 50+ g/L
Notice that Brut Nature, Extra Brut, and Brut have overlapping ranges of sweetness. A Brut wine could have 3 g/L sugar, or it could have 10 g/L. If you want to be sure that your wine will be bone dry, opt for Brut Nature.
Wine Folly put it into perspective with this graphic, filling each glass with its corresponding amount of sugar in grams for a 5 oz pour.
The label of most still wines will indicate whether it is a dry or sweet style. The three main indicators to look for are ABV %, residual sugar (RS), and style descriptors.
Alcohol by Volume (ABV, %)
A wine high in alcohol is unlikely to be sweet, as the high alcohol percentage comes by turning sugar into alcohol. Sweet wines tend to be lower in alcohol since fermentation is stopped before all of the sugar can be turned into alcohol.
The exception to this rule is fortified wines. These wines are made by adding a spirit to the wine. If the spirit is added to stop fermentation, like for Port, the wine will be high in ABV but still sweet.
Residual Sugar (RS)
If the amount of residual sugar in the wine is marked on the wine label, you have the clearest indicator of all!
Dry < Off-Dry < Medium Dry < Medium Sweet < Sweet
- Dry: 0–9 g/L
- Off-Dry/ Slightly Sweet: 9–18 g/L
- Medium Dry/ Semi-Sweet: 18–50 g/L
- Medium Sweet: 50–120 g/L
- Sweet: 120+ g/L
This Wine Folly chart puts it into perspective, with some common wine styles for reference.
Wine style descriptors that indicate the wine will be sweet include demi-sec, Amabile, semi-secco, doux, dolce, moelleux, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Sauternes, Tokaji, and ice wine.
In the end, the fail-proof method is still to ask your wine shop clerk or server. There’s no shame in double-checking! Hopefully, you will see that color, grape variety, and aroma give no inherent indication of sweetness level. The best way to tell if the wine is sweet is by reading the label and getting comfortable with the names used to classify sweet wines. Cheers!