What Makes Wine Dry, Sweet or Semi-Dry?

group of people tossing wine glasses

What makes wine dry? Well, let’s first look at wine itself. With more and more reasonably priced wines appearing on the market from an ever-expanding list of regions, there are now more options available to wine drinkers than ever before. With that expansion into new areas and new demographics, the wine industry has departed from the stuffy, elitist image with which it has long been associated. It now seeks to cultivate the popular notion that there is a wine for every occasion and every budget.

Nowadays one can easily find a Pinot Noir that fits in as well at a backyard BBQ as at a high-end restaurant. However, one of the major barriers still preventing more people from getting into wine is the vocabulary itself. Experienced wine drinkers may toss around terms like dry, sweet, and semi-dry, which have definitions in the wine world that do not exactly align with their everyday usage.

With that in mind, we’ve decided to focus this article on describing what makes wine dry, as opposed to semi-dry or sweet, in the hopes to break down that language barrier.

Why Should I Bother Learning Wine Terminology?

bottle of wine and glasses on the table top

While some casual wine drinkers may scoff at the perceived braggart who insists on describing every detail of his wine experience in seemingly cryptic terms, the complex vocabulary that has arisen around wine culture does not simply exist to make enthusiasts sound more knowledgeable than they actually are (although it certainly can feel that way at times).

To the contrary, the language around wine has evolved in order to give people an agreed-upon basis to discuss the subtleties of the wine, from its appearance to its flavor.

Why should this matter to the casual wine drinker? Once you’ve identified the kind (or kinds) of wine you prefer and learned the appropriate wine terminology, you will be better able to articulate your tastes, making it easier for servers, sommeliers, and wine-shop employees to help you select a wine that suits your palate, making for fewer “misses” when it comes to selecting your wines, whether ordering by the bottle or the glass, in a store or in a restaurant.

Because wine vocabulary allows greater precision in describing wine characteristics that can sometimes be difficult to put into words, the jargon becomes a useful tool for identifying and selecting wines you prefer rather than a means of showing off one’s supposed level of sophistication.

In fact, when one knows the appropriate terminology behind the tastes one prefers, he or she can actually save money because it allows more accurate selections; learning your wine jargon can actually be downright frugal! With that in mind, let’s take a look at the meaning behind some of the most common terms used to describe wines, including dry, sweet, and semi-dry, as well as the science behind what makes wine dry or sweet.

What Makes Wine Dry, Sweet, or Semi-Dry?

One thing that can be confusing about wine terminology is that it uses words or phrases that seem familiar to us, but in the wine context they can take on slightly different or more nuanced meanings. This is certainly the case when it comes to terms like dry, sweet, and semi-dry.

While these terms do refer generally to a wine’s “sweetness” as we typically conceive of it, when it comes to wine, sweet does not simply equate directly with sugar, as it does with other foods and beverages. With wine, what makes wine dry or sweet depends a great deal on other factors that can significantly impact a wine’s perceived “sweetness,” including the level of tannins, acidity, and alcohol.

What Makes Wine Dry Versus Sweet in Taste?

The term “dry wine” might sound a bit like an oxymoron. After all, isn’t all wine a liquid? How can it be considered “dry”?

When wine connoisseurs refer to a wine as “dry”, what they are really making reference to is not its level of wetness, but its level of sweetness. Wine sweetness can be described as existing on a spectrum, with dry wines at one far extreme and sweet wines on the opposite end. In the middle would fall wines classified as “semi-dry.” In this sense, what makes wine dry is its level of sweetness, or, more precisely, its lack thereof.

Despite the other factors that play a role in what makes wine dry, not surprisingly, a wine’s sweetness does depend a lot on what are known as residual sugars, that is, the sugars left in the wine after the winemaking process. To produce a wine that falls further on the sweet end of the spectrum, winemakers have a number of different tools at their disposal, but the core element they all share is increasing the residual sugars present in the finished wine. A wine that is more dry, then, will involve fewer, if any, of these processes.

During Winemaking, What Makes Wine Sweet?

man and woman drinking wine together

Winemakers use three primary methods for adding sweetness to wine. The first, and most obvious method is simply to add refined sugars to the mix. These sweeteners can be as commonplace as sucrose or table sugar.

Producing the right balance of residual sugars is an essential component of the winemaking process. As wine ferments, usually in a wooden barrel, yeast grows and multiplies by consuming sugars in the form of fructose and glucose. Since wine comes from fruit, it inherently begins with a fair amount of sweetness and sugar. Just how much of that sugar the winemaker allows to remain will have a huge influence on the resulting character profile.

Consequently, rather than adding more sugar, another way to make a wine sweeter is for the winemaker to end the fermentation process before the yeast has consumed all the fructose and glucose, meaning that higher levels of residual sugars will remain in the finished wine. The longer the fermentation process is allowed to continue, the more sugars the yeast will consume, and the more “dry” the wine will be. (From this view, fermentation could be said to be what makes wine dry.)

Finally, some winemakers add sweetness to their wines by adding sugar-rich concentrated grape juice back into the mix after fermentation. This essentially has the same impact as ending fermentation earlier, but as a practical matter, it can be much more easily accomplished.

During Winemaking, What Makes Wine Dry?

drinks what makes wine dry

In essence, then, what makes wine dry is the absence of sweetness. This can be accomplished first and foremost by refraining from the sugar-adding activities referenced above and by allowing fermentation to proceed until the yeast has consumed all the glucose and fructose, thereby leaving a very limited amount of residual sugars. However, one can also influence a wine’s sweetness by adjusting other factors such as acidity and tannins.

One of the biggest components of what makes wine dry is the wine’s acidity. Generally speaking, the more acidic a wine’s profile, the more dry and less sweet it will be. This is because higher levels of acidity effectively “cut through” the sweetness of the residual sugars, making them less pronounced.

Similarly, the level of tannins can impact a wine’s perceived sweetness, regardless of its amount of residual sugars. This is because tannins, which come from the grape skins, seeds, and stems that get crushed into the wine, have a naturally bitter flavor, providing an offset to any sweetness. This is why expert winemakers strive to attain just the right balance of residual sugars, acidity, and tannins to produce the full-bodied, complex taste wine enthusiasts love. (From this perspective, then, what makes wine dry are tannins and acidity.)

How Is Sweetness Measured?

While for centuries the measuring of sweetness or dryness in wine was limited to subjective tastings (hence the reason for the complex vocabulary that grew up around the winemaking tradition), nowadays winemakers are able to use scientific precision in determining the amount of residual sugars present in a wine at any given point in the winemaking process.

This is thanks to a device known as a hydrometer which actually floats in the wine, calculating the delta between the floating point of the wine and floating point of distilled, pure water. Because alcohol is lighter than pure water and sugar is heavier, the device then is able to determine the levels of residual sugars and alcohol present in the wine in real time, a far cry from when winemakers used to rely on their own palates when tasting straight from the barrel!

In this sense, the sweetness (or dryness) of a given wine can be measured with scientific precision and assigned a percentage. Sweeter wines, with flavors characterized by fruitiness and a high sugar content, have residual sugar levels of 5% and above. By way of comparison, semi-sweet wines, which are intended to have a hint of sweetness but not too much, typically boast residual sugar levels ranging from 1.5% to 4.9%.

Moving further down to the dry end of the spectrum, we have semi-dry wines, which usually have just a hint of fruity sweetness to round out the other flavors. These semi-dry wines have residual sugar levels of between 0.5% and 1.49%.

Thus, a dry wine, whether a white or a red, will have a residual sugar level of less than 0.5%. However, due to the naturally occurring sugars in grapes, winemakers rarely achieve a wine that has less than 0.1% residual sugars, meaning that there truly are no “bone dry” wines and that all wines do, in fact, contain some level of residual sugar and, therefore, sweetness.

What Are Some Popular Varieties of Dry Wines?

Since the dryness versus sweetness of a wine depends more on the winemaking process than on the original properties of a given grape varietal, dry wines can be found in both red and white. Red wines that are popular dry include varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel, as well as regional blends like a Bordeaux or a Burgundy.

Even dry white wines may retain an aroma of sweetness, but that sweetness is not reflected in the levels of residual sugars, which remain quite low. Popular dry white wines include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio, though those varietals can be found in sweeter formulations as well.

Which Wines Are Best for Different Situations?

alcoholic beverages on the counter top

While the old saying goes, “Let the wine be the occasion,” a fitting corollary might be that the wine that is right for the situation is the one that you will enjoy the most. There is no “right” or “wrong” wine for any occasion, so long as you are enjoying it.

This fear of “doing it wrong” or drinking the wrong thing happens to be another major reason people cite as to why they are reluctant to get more into wine. Rarely would one be confronted with condescending looks or snide comments for choosing the “wrong” beer or cocktail to go with a particular meal or social occasion, so why is that such a concern when it comes to wine?

In our experience, this fear of “doing wine wrong” is related to the invisible barrier presented by wine’s unique jargon, with both relating back to the perceived elitism and exclusivity of wine drinking. Historically, however, this could not be further from the truth, as archeological artifacts prove that for centuries if not millennia, wine-drinking hardly has been relegated to society’s wealthy elite but rather has been engaged in by all manner of individuals from a range of social classes.

So let that be a lesson before we delve into the supposed “right” and “wrong” wines for every situation. In truth, there is no “right” or “wrong” wine except for what your personal preference dictates. However, there are some helpful rules of thumb to assist in determining what wine might go better with certain foods or certain occasions. While these recommendations are built mostly around food pairings, other factors include time of day, temperature, season, and the nature of the occasion itself.

Where Did the Wine Come From?

Before we delve into reds versus whites and what pairs better with which foods, we think it helpful to pass on a bit of useful advice that an experienced wine seller once shared with us: when trying to determine which foods go best with which wines, look to the region from which a given wine comes and what the typical diet in that region consists of.

This advice, so often overlooked, is shockingly simple at its core: people tend to make wines that go well with the food they eat. According to this logic, the wines deriving from a coastal region likely will pair better with seafood than wines from an area where beef is the primary source of animal protein, and vice versa.

What this simple hint also reminds us is, for as scientific and/or elitist wine culture certainly can sometimes be, it really all boils down to one subjective determination: does it taste good to you? We find that once one is able to get past these concepts of drinking the “correct” wine and learns to trust his or her personal taste, wine-drinking becomes a much more enjoyable and fulfilling experience.

Red Wines

Generally speaking, red wines are bigger and bolder than their white counterparts. This means that red wines are best paired with foods that themselves have strong flavors powerful enough to stand up against the wine. For this reason, red wines often are paired with red meats like steak or pasta dishes with flavor-rich, tomato-based sauces.

However, even among red wines, there is a range from lighter flavors to heavier ones. For example, a Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be dark, rich, dry, and heavy on the tannins, making it perfect for a peppery steak at dinner time. It would less ideal for a warm summer afternoon over the BBQ, for which occasion one might prefer a Pinot Noir, which tends to be lighter, fruitier, and sweeter than the typical Cabernet, while still possessing the boldness to hold up to red meat or pork chops.

White Wines

As opposed to red wines, which typically are served at about room temperature, white wines tend to be served slightly chilled. This, combined with their fruity sweetness (even among dryer versions) makes them ideal for enjoying on a warm spring or summer day. Similarly, white wines tend to pair better with more subtle flavors found in fish or cream-based sauces.

Conclusion

wine glasses what makes wine dry

In conclusion, what makes wine dry is a combination of residual sugars, acidity, and tannins, but what makes a wine right for the occasion is your personal preference. We have encountered far too many people (some of ourselves included) who have spent far too long drinking wines they think they are supposed to like instead of ones they actually enjoy.

By learning some basic wine terminology and some fundamental aspects of winemaking, like what makes wine dry versus sweet, one can better put into words the flavors and mouth-feel one most enjoys, helping to ensure that you drink more wine you like and less wine you don’t. After all, enjoyment is what drinking wine is all about!

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