What’s the Difference Between Dry Wine and Sweet Wine?

One of the first things a sommelier attempts to determine during a deductive wine tasting is the sweetness level of the wine he or she is drinking. At the most basic level of its classification, a wine is typically placed in either a dry or sweet category.

Wines that retain a high amount of residual sugar following fermentation are classified as sweet wines.

Wines with low levels of residual sugar following fermentation fall into the dry category.

But is it really that easy to taste the difference between sweet and dry wine? There are a number of factors that affect the gradation of how sweet or dry a wine is – as well as our perception. For instance, a wine may taste sweet, but be classified as dry. In order to really grasp this concept, we need to move away from trusting what our taste buds perceive as sweet and try more to understand what goes into a wine that gives it its perceived flavor.

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While winemakers around the world employ different methods to influence a wines’ sugar content, we’ll explore the most common strategies below.

Understanding the Difference Between Sweet Wine and Dry Wine | Winetraveler.com

Common Factors That Make a Wine Sweet or Dry

When Grapes are Harvested

Immature grapes have a lower sugar content than ripe (mature) grapes. Ripe grapes also contain lower levels of acidity than unripe grapes, which can influence flavor.

Vinters who are looking to create a dry wine will often pick their grapes before they are completely mature to attain a certain degree of acidity and lower levels of residual sugar following fermentation.


Grapes grown in warmer climates tend to have a higher sugar content than those grown in cooler climates. Warmth from the sun enhances the concentration of sugar present in the water within the grapes.

What’s Done with the Grapes Following the Harvest

Winemakers looking to add sweetness to their wine will sometimes allow the grapes to dry in direct sunlight. This method intensifies the concentration of sugar present.

Conversely, winemakers in cooler climates can allow the grapes to remain on their vines until they’re frozen. When they’re eventually harvested, the water in the grapes will have a higher concentration of sugar.


One of the most powerful ways to influence a wines’ sweetness or dryness is to control the length of fermentation. Basic chemistry states that through a number of chemical processes, sugar is ultimately converted into alcohol. Sugars transition into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol during fermentation. The facilitator of this process is a micro-organism called Yeast.

The longer a wine is allowed to ferment, the dryer the end wine product will be.

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What is the Definition of a Dry Wine? | Winetraveler.com

Factors That Affect What We Perceive as Sweet or Dry

To the untrained wine taster, it can sometimes be difficult to interpret the difference between sweet wine and fruity-styled wines. This can be difficult to determine for a variety of red and white wines.

Below, we take a look at some of the nuances present in wines that affect what we perceive as sweet and dry.

Tannins: As they relate to wine, Tannins are contained within grape skins, seeds and stems. When we sip on wine, tannins bind to proteins in our saliva which ultimately causes a drying out sensation. The degree of this feeling can vary from person to person, but typically, the more tannins that are present – the dryer a wine will seem.

For example, a “sweet” wine with a high tannic content is still classified as a sweet wine because of its residual sugar content – even though it may taste dry.

Acidity:  Often confused with tannins, acid affects the flavor of wine rather than the feel of it in your mouth. Immature grapes contain high levels of acidity.

The more acidic a wine is, the dryer it will taste.

Alcohol: We discussed how sugar is ultimately converted into alcohol. The longer a wine is allowed to ferment, the higher the alcohol content will be while simultaneously the sugar content is reduced.

Out of the three factors that affect our perception, alcohol is the only one that truly has an influence on determining whether a wine can be classified as sweet vs dry.

Popular Sweet and Dry Wines

While some grape varieties can be both sweet, dry (such as Riesling) or off-dry, below we list some popular varieties that are traditionally classified as sweet or dry.

Examples of Classically Sweet Wines

  • Port
  • Riesling
  • Muscato
  • Icewine/Eiswein
  • Vouvray
  • Sauternes
  • Tokaji

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Examples of Classically Dry Wines

  • Pinot Noir
  • Malbec
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Merlot
  • Tempranillo
  • Sangiovese
  • Pinot Grigio
  • Pinot Blanc
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Chardonnay

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Greig Santos-Buch is a Co-Founder at Winetraveler, WSET II Merit wine thought-provoker and off-the-beaten-path outdoorsman. He first became involved with wine traveling after a month-long solo trip to Spain about 10 years ago, planning the trip almost exclusively around the gastronomic scene of the country. Ever since that particular trip abroad, he developed a passion for traveling and making wine tourism the core driver behind where he ends up. This has since led him to exciting destinations including the Czech Republic, to Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, Portugal, California, Washington State, Canada and beyond. His primary aim through Winetraveler is to expose this style of travel to the world and make it accessible to everyone.

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