What is Dry Wine?

no sugar

I was checking search data on the blog, hoping to find out what it is that you really want to know. The top search over the last several months is on “Moscato.” I’ve got a post on that coming right up.

What came in second? “What is dry wine?”

Okee dokee. That’s a pretty good question because it’s not cut and dried – pun intended 😉 – dryness is relative.

While, in the rest of the world dry is the opposite of wet, in the wine world dry is the opposite of sweet. I’ve noticed that a lot of folks who want to appear sophisticated about wine make a point of saying that they don’t drink the sweet stuff. Well, let me tell you, they’re missing out on a whole lot of fun because some of the most exquisite and sought-after wines in the world are sweet wines done right!


As a quick review, during the fermentation, yeast consumes the sugar in the grape juice and converts it into heat, carbon-dioxide gas and alcohol. To make dry wine, the winemaker lets the yeast run amok and use up every last bit of ferment-able sugar. It’s generally accepted that our taste threshold for table wine (as opposed to sparkling wine, fortified wine, distilled wine…) is about .5% sugar so that, or less, is considered technically dry. In reality, the sugar can be significantly lower.

Perception vs. Reality

But, our perception doesn’t always jive with the lab report. For instance, fruitiness can trick our palates into detecting sweetness that isn’t really there. This is especially true with intensely fruity varieties such as Moscato or Viognier. It just takes practice to be able to differentiate and even the pros are fooled from time to time.

Acid is another trickster. High acidity masks sweetness. Brut Champagne is a good example. The Brut designation tell us that it’s a dry bubbly, but the regulations in the Champagne region allow for up to 1.5% sugar. That’s a far cry from .5% But, Champagne is so high in acid that it offsets what would otherwise be very noticeable sweetness.

The level of alcohol is influential, too. I’ll bet most of you have had a red Zinfandel that seemed kind of sweet – it’s not uncommon – some of them are rather port like. Now, it could be that a little residual sugar was left in, but check the label for the alcohol. Some of those Zins are very high octane so you’ve got a double whammy when it comes to your perception. Alcohol is sweet to the taste even though it doesn’t show up as sugar in the lab report. And Zinfandel is a very fruity grape.

Marketing Tricks

To further cloud the issue, it’s quite common for producers of moderately-priced wines, think $8 – $15.00 Chardonnay, to market the wine as dry when it actually has a little sweetness. No wonder we’re all confused!

As my Dad used to say, “Ain’t nothin’ simple!”

So, the term dry can apply to a wine that sells for $2.00 or $2,000.00. But in both cases, it shouldn’t taste sweet!

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Filed under buying wine, wine appreciation

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