The topic of dry wine and/or sweet wine is very common in the wine business. Having worked in tasting rooms for years, I would often hear the statement, ‘Wow, this wine is really dry!’, when someone would be drinking a big heavy wine like Cabernet Sauvignon or Petite Sirah. This statement is both correct from a ‘feeling’ perspective and wrong from a wine vernacular sense. Below, I will discuss the following to help shed some light on this topic:
Dry Wine vs Sweet Wine: Dry, Off Dry & Sweet
If you are using the term correctly in wine speak, a “dry wine” is a wine with basically no sugar in it. (A dry wine is fermented dry.) An “off-dry” wine has a small amount of sugar in it (think some Rieslings...sweet but not super sweet). And a “sweet” wine obviously has a lot of sugar, though there is no real definition. If your mouth says “damn, this is sweet!” go ahead and consider it a sweet wine.
Why does the general public use the term “dry” much of the time? That is mostly due to a molecule called tannin. There are a lot of different kinds of tannin, in different shapes and sizes- they all feel different in the mouth depending on their size and shape.
Tannin can come from the skin, seeds, and stem of a grape. Tannin can also come from the wood that the wine is stored in. If a wine has a lot of tannin, it is typically more worthy of aging. Overtime, tannin molecules bind together, increasing in size, resulting in a softer feel on the palate. It can also be very bitter... think pure Cocoa.
Can Dry Wines Be Sweet?
Why yes, they can! Thanks for asking. The answer would be a mix of consumer and professional terms. From the feeeeeling standpoint it can be dry. Just because a wine is big and tannic does not mean it can’t be sweet. Port is a good example of this situation. These wines have a lot of sugar in them, but also have a fair amount of tannin. If the wines were fermented “dry” they would seem much more tannic than they do, but the sugar in the wine counteracts the feeling of dryness. Side note...sugar also helps “round out” acid in wine.
From a winemaking standpoint a “dry wine” cannot be a “sweet wine”. In other words, it can’t both have and not have sugar, unless I am missing something- note: I am not.
How much sugar is in your average wine?
I always consider a wine fermentation “dry” when it is at or below 2 grams of sugar (glucose/fructose) per liter of wine. This is a lot less than a Coca-Cola which has a whopping ~120 grams per liter. As a winemaker, a wine that is intended to be dry can sometimes stop fermenting, leaving more sugar than anticipated. This can be very worrisome, especially if it is meant to be aged. Wines with a lot of sugar left in them can have a very high population of yeast and/or bacteria. This isn’t bad for you, but it can make for a pretty shitty wine. Sugar is food for yeast and bacteria. Those little buggers will eat the sugar and create things like Volatile Acidity (aka vinegar)...not good in a wine.
Some wines will have a little extra sugar left in them after fermentation. A winemaker can control this to an extent, but he/she could be playing with fire. A big Napa Cabernet Sauvignon may contain extra sugar because the alcohol level can get too high and kill the yeast before they are done fermenting. This “residual sugar” can help round out a heavy, tannic wine, but it’s not for everyone.
When filming an episode of our YouTube show, Lucky Rock Wine Lounge, we tested four wines to see how much sugar was left or added to the wines. As you can see Wine # 4 was very high in added sugar- and you DEFINATLEY could taste it.
Adding Sugar to Wine
In California, if a winemaker decides to ferment a wine dry, and, before bottling decides that he/she should have left some sugar in there...they can increase sweetness by adding what is called “grape concentrate”. This method is not a very romantic way to get sugar into wine, but it is the only legal way to do it. Rules differ from place to place.
This also goes for grapes that don’t have enough sugar when picked. Before fermentation, in California pure sugar cannot be added legally, only grape concentrate. Adding grape concentrate to wines in France is illegal but adding cane sugar (chaptalization) is completely legal. Chaptalization is also legal in Oregon.
Note: If you add grape concentrate to a finished wine, it will most likely need to be filtered because you cannot trust that the wine will not start to grow some sugar-loving critters in it.
To recap, sugar in wine can be a little confusing, but once you learn the in/outs of the situation along with some main points to know...it can all start to make sense. Sugar can be added to wine (sweetened), left in wine (left unfermented). Wine can be very sweet, kind of sweet, and not sweet at all. The tricky part is learning which wines are thought to be dry, but are actually not.
On our YouTube show, Lucky Rock Wine Lounge (episodes 5 & 6), we tested sugars in wines that most people would think are dry. Those wines ranged from 1.5 grams per liter (dry) to 20 grams per liter (crazy sweet for a “dry” wine).
Go out and drink some wines, ask some questions and explore the world of sugar in wine. Cheers!
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