LearnDry wine: understanding sweetness in wine
dry wine and sweetness

Dry wine: understanding sweetness in wine

Dry and Sweet Wines – An Exploration

In this entry we will delve into the topic of different types of wine, focussing on: dry and sweet options. This feature will cover definitions of dry wine, some different ways producers control the sweetness/dryness of their wines, various examples of each style, several mouthwatering food and wine pairing ideas, and, finally, an experiment that you can try at home.

Defining Dry wine and Sweet wine

Firstly, we need a definition of what is meant by dry and sweet wines. Dry can be quite a misleading term, so remember, your wine is still going to be wet!

To explain, we must first of all remind ourselves of the fermentation process for wine:

Sugar (from the grapes) + Yeast => Carbon Dioxide + Alcohol

The below process means that ambient or added yeast will feed off the sugar present in the grape juice, transforming it into a new drink that has alcohol (and we call wine!) and releasing bubbles of carbon dioxide, or CO2. If all the sugar is ‘fermented’ or transformed in alcohol by the yeast, then we won’t have any residual sugar left – therefore we had made a dry wine.

Differing amounts of Residual Sugar can also be left over in the wine after this reaction. If, for some reason, the yeast doesn’t ferment all the sugar in the grape fruit, then it might taste a bit sweet. Basically, a wine that contains more Residual Sugar will be sweet or sweeter, while a wine with less will be dry or drier depending on the amount of sugar remaining.

To make a sweet wine, in fact, yeast activity must be interrupted before all the natural sugar of the grapes is consumed. The most common way of achieving this is simply chilling the wine – at low temperatures, the yeast struggle to survive and they die before all the sugar is consumed.

A key point here is that there are not just sweet and dry options. There is a whole range between the two, conditional on the amount of Residual Sugar left in the wine. Don’t forget, also, that dry wines can still have a very small amount of sugar left, technically less than 4 g/L.

How to make sweet wine

Next on our list to answer is how producers make wines with different levels of sweetness in wine or Residual Sugar. Several of the main methods are explained below:

  • The key way of controlling sweetness in wines is through the amount of fermentation time during production. Ending fermentation early leaves more residual sugar, as explained before, thus creating a sweet wine. This is because the sugar and yeast have not had time to completely finish their reaction, so some sugar is left over.
  • Secondly, one can use the maturity of the grape. The more mature or ripe the fruit itself, the more sugar it possesses, sometimes too much for the fermentation to be completed! 
  • A third option open to winemakers is drying the grapes in the sun to increase their sweetness/sugar levels. Freezing the grapes also has the same effect – this is the case of ice wine.
Dry and Sweet wine Examples

Personally, I love sweet wines and have tried a wide variety. Examples include everything from South African Constantia, Canadian Ice Wine, Port, and Hungarian Tokaji to the classic French Sauternes. My choice offering, so far, is the latter. I am yet to find a sweet wine that beats it!

The majority of the wines in the world, however, are dry. Now, for some of my favourite dry wines. I am a big fan of Pinot Noir from Burgundy and New Zealand, also Red Bordeaux wines, which are made primarily from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and for other dry Cabernet Sauvignons I look to California. In terms of dry white wines, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are two of the obvious contenders for me, and can be found in a variety of regions.

Stanlake Park, too, has a wide range of wine and the vast majority are dry wine examples, such as the Bacchus, any of the reds or the Pinot Noir Rosé. But we also have an off-dry option in our Hinton Grove. Off-dry simply means that the wine has slightly more Residual Sugar content than a dry alternative.

Is sparkling wine dry or sweet?

Sparkling wines usually have some level of sugar in them, in order to balance the crisp acidity typical of these wines. Think of a very acidic drink (e.g. lemon or orange juice) and how does it change when we add even a little sugar to them: the astringent sensation disappears as it’s balanced with the sweetness.

The same principle applies to sparkling wine, from Champagne to Prosecco and of course English Sparkling Wine: a bit of sugar is added to balance the high acidity. How much sugar? Well, it depends what you are trying to make. A ‘Brut’ or dry sparkling wine doesn’t have more than 10g of sugar in a litre of wine, so actually taste perfectly dry. If you want a sweet fizz or a ‘demi-sec’ (semi-sweet) then the sugar on it will vary from 30g to over 100g in a litre. That sugar you will be able to taste in your mouth! And have you heard of the Brut Naturel or Zero Dosage wines? Those wines have absolute no sugar added, so they can taste rather tangy or even a bit harsh if you’re not familiar with the sensation.

Cakes and desserts are paired with sweet wines, as the residual sugar creates a perfect balance
Food Pairing for sweet and dry wines

Firstly, let’s focus on the sweet wines. The main thing to remember here is that you need a food that can match up to the Residual Sugar content of the wine. So most savoury main courses will not cut it. When food pairing for a Sauternes or a Tokaji for example, you should think along the lines of desserts such as Crème Brûlée, Tarte Tatin, and Panna Cotta. Alternatively, if you are a Port fan, this always goes well with blue cheeses.

Now, to whet your appetite, here are just a few tasty examples for dry wine options. You will want to avoid any of those previous sugary suggestions. One possibility for a Red Bordeaux is a rather meaty, savoury dish such as slow-roasted lamb shoulder with rosemary (this would actually be in my top three combinations). A Chardonnay-based Chablis from the Burgundy region is also an excellent match up to oysters and, if those aren’t to your taste, it would be lovely with creamy fish dishes. There are of course plenty of other pairings out there!

A Dry to Sweet Experiment

I do love a good experiment, although nothing too technical. This particular test will help if you want more practical experience of the different styles of dry and sweet wines. My proposition is to sample a range of Rieslings. These start from a dry wine versions and go all the way to sweet offerings, so you can get a really good idea of how the residual sugar affects the final product through first hand tasting. This also demonstrates what was stated in the definition about the range of sweetness levels.

Dry wine or sweet wine: or maybe both!

What have we learnt? Quite a lot really: what defines a dry wine or a sweet wine, the methods for creating these different styles, some examples (including from Stanlake Park), pairing suggestions, and a rather sip-intensive and, hopefully, illuminating experiment!

We would love to hear from you as well. So if you have any especially saliva-inducing or quirky pairing ideas, or even other experiments to try, then do let us know in the comments section below. Keep Tasting!

Wine lover working in viticulture, enjoys reading classic books and staying in shape.