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

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


At first, this seems like an easy thing to discern. I mean, we all know what sweet tastes like, right? So, duh. Dry is the opposite of sweet. There. Next question please.

Well, it’s actually not that simple.

While sweet and dry wine are both defined by the level of residual sugar (or lack thereof) left in the wine after fermentation has been completed, other factors such as acidity, tannins and alcohol will effect the perception of what is sweet and what is dry. Sparkling wine gets even more complicated. We’ll talk about that in What about Sparkling Wines? below.

1. Sweet Wine, Dry Wine and the Fermentation Process

Sweet wine can be created a number of ways.

One method used in some areas of the world to produce very sweet wine involves picking the grapes before they have fully matured (to preserve acidity) and then drying them in the sun (to produce sweetness).

Another method famous in dessert wine is to allow mature grapes to actually be frozen while on the vine and then pressed. In so doing, the frozen water stays with the grape, while the syrupy condensed juice of the grape is bled off. This creates a dessert wine called Icewine or Eiswein.

A third method sometimes employed is adding sugar to the juice to gain that extra sweetness and to offset especially acidic grapes normally grown in cooler climates.   This is called chaptalization.  However, this technique is uniquely regulated by country, location and by the classification of the wine. 

Another method practiced today in the wine world is to actually stop the fermentation process before it has finished its cycle, which can enhance the grape’s sweetness. Why stop the fermentation cycle? Well, because, during fermentation, the grapes’ natural sugars are actually being turned in to alcohol. As the alcohol level rises, the sugar level drops. If you stop the fermentation before the maximum amount of sugar can be metabolized into alcohol, there will be more sugar left in the wine than one that has completed the fermentation process.

Finally, one of the most common ways of producing sweet wine is simply to harvest the grapes late. More mature grapes have more sugar. More mature grapes also tend to have lower levels of acidity, which makes the sugars more pronounced. When more mature, sugary grapes are fermented, there will be more residual sugar left over in the end than, say, a younger grape that contains less sugar but more acidity. What little sugar the younger grape had was used up in the fermentation process and converted into alcohol. The end product of the younger grape will be a very dry wine (unless sugar is added to it after the fermentation process).

So, if there is no residual sugar left in the wine after the fermentation process is completed, the wine will be called “dry”. From dry, we move to semi-sweet or off-dry (very little residual sugar) and then to sweet wines. The thing is, what our taste buds determine as “sweet” or “dry” may not be in direct proportion to the wine’s labeling of “sweet” or “dry”.

2. The LCBO Sugar Code

Actually, there is a code called the LCBO Sugar Code that ranks the amount of residual sugar left in the wines. Typically, the code ranges from 0 (very dry) to 30 (very sweet). In more detail, 0 is very dry (which actually reflects wines with up to .50% residual sugar), 1-2 is dry, 3-6 is medium (sometimes referred to as semi-dry or semi-sweet or off-dry) and 7 and up is sweet!

3. Our Perception of Sweet and Dry versus The LCBO Sugar Code

While the LCBO Sugar Code may help us determine whether or not a wine is technically dry or sweet, as mentioned earlier, things like acidity, tannin and alcohol will change the perception of that sweetness. In general, a highly acidic wine will normally be considered dry.

However, depending on applicable regulations, vintners will sometimes add acidity to their sweet wine so that the wine will have more crispness and will be less syrupy.  Or, as mentioned above, sugar is sometimes added to  very acidic wine to make it sweeter and less severe.   In other cases, very sweet wine may have natural acidity to offset the sweetness.

For an example of this latter circumstance, we could look at the dessert wine: Icewine.  Some Icewine have an LCBO level of 21, which would indicate that the wine is super sweet.  And it would be.   While sweet is good, we also want a little acidity in it to give it some zing, otherwise, it would just taste like syrup.  So, what keeps the Icewine from tasting like pancake syrup?  For the most part, it’s the acid in the wine (with some help from the alcohol) that cuts through the sugar and makes it seem a little less sweet. It’s kind of like dissolving four tablespoons of sugar in one cup of water. If you drank it, it would seem very syrupy, right? What if you added the juice of a lemon to that same cup of sugar water? It only reduces the concentration of sugar in the water by a minuscule amount, but it makes the sugar water taste a lot less syrupy sweet and it gives it some zing and flavor.  Same thing with wine.

Conversely, many wines that are considered “very dry” will actually have an LCBO Sugar Code higher than what one would expect. For example, a Riesling may be rated a 2 on the LCBO, but upon tasting it, one may not be able to detect any sugar at all. This is because the acid level in the Riesling is so high, it makes the sugars remaining in the wine practically imperceptible.

4. Bottom Line of Sweet v Dry Wine Determination

Dry and Sweet wines are determined by the level of residual sugar left in wine after it has fermented. The LCBO sugar code attempts to categorize dry and sweet wines by labeling them 0 (very dry) to 30 and above (extremely sweet).

However, depending on the level of acids (and to a lesser extent alcohol and/or tannins), our perception of whether a wine is dry or sweet may differ somewhat from its dry/sweet designation.

5. What about Sparkling Wines?

Sparkling wines range in sweetness from very dry to very sweet, but how they are categorized is somewhat different. In fact, a syrupy-sweet sparkling wine is called “Demi-Sec” which, translated from French, means “partly dry”.

Hmm, you may wonder, what’s dry sparkling wine, then?

Well, dry sparkling wine is called “Brut” which comes from an old French word meaning “rough” or the Latin word brutus, meaning “heavy”.

So, wines that are crisp and dry are called “heavy” and wines laden with sugary sweetness are called dry….

Oh.

Yep, that’s how it is in the World of Sparkling Wines. But don’t worry; for your viewing pleasure, I will list the categories of dry to sweet sparkling wines below:

1) Brut Nature or Brut Natural (very, very dry)

2) Extra Brut or Brut Extra

3) Brut

4) Extra Dry/Extra Sec (slightly sweet)

5) Sec

6) Demi-Sec (very sweet)

7) Doux* (very, very sweet)

*In some cases, you may stumble upon a sparkling wine labeled Doux. This is supposedly even sweeter than the Demi-Sec, but I’ve never even seen a bottle of it before. Do you know what “Doux” translates to from French? “Sweet.” Seriously, it does. Finally, something that makes sense!

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