To answer the question which wines are considered dry requires understanding some key terminology and definitions.
First, it behooves us to briefly discuss the wine making process to get a better understanding of what dry really means. The process of making wine is actually simple:
- Grapes are picked, put into a vessel where it ferments into wine.
- The yeast eats the sugar in the grapes and the byproduct of that is alcohol.
- The more sugar there is to eat, the more alcohol is produced.
When the grapes are picked the sugars are measured with a term called "brix." Degrees brix refers to the amount of sugar found in the grapes on the vine. After the winemaking process any sugar left in the wine is called "residual sugar" (or RS for short). So, in the long run what you're looking for when wondering which wines are considered dry is the level of residual sugar in the wine itself.
Which Wines Are Considered Dry
Any wine with between 0 and 1.3 percent residual sugar is considered "dry." Most red and white wines that aren't considered dessert wines are not labeled with the term "dry" at all. Actually, legally nothing with the residual sugar level percentage is required to be on the label. When you pick up your favorite bottle of Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon you may not know specifically what the residual sugar level is, but you can bet that it's going to be dry.
Now, in other countries they have almost the same rules as we do regarding which wines are considered dry. For the varietals that make a table wine, they won't put the term "dry" on the label either. Again, Riesling and Gewürztraminer usually can be dry or sweet in other countries (unless you're talking specific sweeter wines like Sauternes or Muscats). In Germany, however, they have terms for their Riesling that mean dry, off-dry, sweet and then one for super-sweet:
- Kabinett is the lowest level of sweetness
- Spätlese means off-dry or late picked
- Auslese which is sweeter yet
- Berenauslese is very sweet
- Trockenbeerenauslese is significantly sweet, like sugar water
Now it gets a little more confusing when you buy wine varietals that can be "dry," "off dry," and "sweet." If you are a fan of Riesling and Gewürztraminer you may have to get more clues from the label as to its sweetness level. If you buy one of these wines you may see something that says "off-dry" or even something with the specific residual sugar level. Here is a hint: Johannesburg Riesling is a sweeter wine, so if you're a sweeter Riesling fan that is an avenue that would probably satisfy.
Champagne and Sparkling Wine
For Champagne and sparkling wine it gets even more confusing because of the terminology. The confusion really lies with the terms "Brut" and "Extra Dry." Brut is actually the driest of the two, which seems weird given that Extra Dry would seem to - by sheer name - be the driest, but it's not. Brut has sugar levels between 0-1.5 percent. Extra Dry is anywhere between 1.2 and 2.4 percent. The term Brut is actually French for brutish-so that is referring to the sugar levels. Strange, but stranger things have been done in the wine industry!
Most Wines Are Dry
Whatever you choose for wine, rest assured that the majority of wine out there is dry, even though it may not be labeled as such. If all else fails, be sure to ask the local wine rep or staff person at your favorite wine shop. They can steer you in the right direction. Cheers!