When describing a wine, there are a handful of common phrases used to indicate what you taste or what you are looking for--"dry" is one of them. The term "dry" doesn't actually translate to your sensory experience in the mouth, but rather it refers to the lack of sweetness in a wine.
What Is Dry Wine?
A dry wine has zero to very little residual sugar left after fermentation, which means that you can taste all those fruit flavors from the grapes without the sweetness. When you think about drinking grape juice, it is a big, sweet punch of flavor. In the case of wine, yeasts consume those natural sugars during the fermentation process and convert them into alcohol. Most wines are left to ferment until nearly all the sugars have been converted to alcohol and there is no detectable sweetness left in the wine, resulting in a dry wine. If the winemaker is aiming to produce an off-dry or sweet wine, they may stop the fermentation process before all the sugars have been consumed.
Understanding Sugar in Wine
All natural sugar in wine comes from the fruit itself. In winemaking, this sweetness is measured using the Brix scale. Brix is a measure of sugar content in the grapes, which indicates the ripeness. Most grapes are harvested between 21 and 25 Brix. In this range, the grapes are typically ripe and express their whole spectrum of flavors, yet they aren't sickly sweet. If they are picked at a very low Brix, they will be under-ripe and won't taste good. Think about biting into an unripe apple--the flavors are undeveloped and its chalky and tart in all the wrong ways. If grapes are picked at a very high Brix, they will have very high levels of sugar. This means that if all the sugar is converted to alcohol during fermentation, it will have a very high ABV (Alcohol by Volume). If the winemaker stops fermentation prematurely to avoid making a high alcohol wine, then, residual sugar will be left, resulting in a sweeter wine.
How You Taste Sweetness
While its common to think of dry wines having zero residual sugar, oftentimes they do actually have some, its just that the palate cannot detect it. Many people cannot taste sweetness if sugar levels are under 1.5%. For reference, 1% is about 10 grams per liter of residual sugar. Here's how it breaks down in terms of dry, off-dry, and sweet:
- Dry = > 1%
- Off-dry or semi-sweet = < 3%
- Dessert wine < 6-9%
So, Which Wines Are Dry?
While we think of most reds being dry and certain whites, like riesling, as being off-dry or sweet, any grape can be made in a dry style. So how do you know when reading a label if it's dry or not? It's a little complicated. The percentage of residual sugar is almost never listed directly on the label; however, it is often listed on the tech sheet.
A wine tech sheet has less whimsical writing about the wine and more, well, technical information about the wine such as, soil type, vineyard elevation, maturation vessel, days of skin contact, and so on. Not every producer puts out a tech sheet for their wine, but it is becoming more common as people are requiring more transparency when it comes to selecting wines. If you are wondering about a specific wine, try going to to the producer's website and searching out the tech sheet to find out more details on how the wine was made. Technical sheets aside, you can count on most wines to be made in a dry style unless it's destined to be a dessert wine.
Certain Old World wines have differing rules for what determines a dry, off-dry, or sweet wine. For example, in Germany, where riesling is the most widely grown grape and is made in all styles, there is a legal set of terms that appear on the label, called Prädikats, which indicate the style and dryness of the wine. In France, there is yet another set of terms to indicate how dry Champagne and crémant are.
Most Wines Are Dry
When browsing the aisles at your local wine shop, most all red and white wines are likely to be dry (unless you're in the dessert wine section). If you want to get a first-hand opinion on a specific wine, ask the shop owner, and they'll steer you in the right direction.