Wine and Walnuts

A blog about eating, drinking, cooking and reading in the not so Deep South

Wine Basics: Dry Versus Sweet and What It All Means, in 5 Easy Steps

rose-wineOK. I feel compelled to write this specific post because I need to get a couple things off my chest.  Yes, that’s right, I’m taking to the blog to work out some of my recent (wine-selling) frustrations. 

To be clear, these aren’t frustrations having anything to do with you, the ever awesome readers of Wine and Walnuts, mind you, or any of the folks I’ve done an in-home tasting for lately, it’s more about the people I’ve served or sold wine to in my day job, who insist on telling me a dry wine is sweet, when it most emphatically is not. Again today, in fact. 

So I thought I would turn lemons into lemonade, i.e., use my annoyance on the subject as an opportunity to clear up some of the confusion over what it means to be sweet, and what it means to be dry, when talking wine.

(The information below comes from an awesome book, which I highly, highly recommend, called “Oldman’s Guide to Outsmarting Wine,” by Gary Oldman)

1. Dry is technically the opposite of sweet. A textbook dry wine occurs when all of the natural sugar in grapes converts to alcohol during the fermentation process.

2. Sweet wine gets that way because not all of its sugar is allowed to convert to alcohol.  The unfermented sugar left in the wine is called “residual sugar.”

3. Off-dry wines are semisweet, i.e., they have a moderate amount of residual sugar.

4. What gives the impression of sweetness in a dry wine is actually the fermentation of extra-ripe grapes.  Grapes can get very ripe in warm climates like those of Australia and California, hence wines from those areas can sometimes give off the impression of sweetness.  This comes from the natural fruitiness of extremely ripe grapes, and when used, the wine’s contact with the oak barrels it is fermented in (giving the wine a vanilla-like dimension), but not from residual sugar.

5. OK, I don’t really have a #5, but “Dry Versus Sweet in 4 Easy Steps” didn’t sound as good.

And there you have it.  So, to the lady who argued with me about the delightful Pinot Noir I recommended to she and her friends the other day, saying she’d had it before and it was sweet . . . Ahem, like I said (very nicely, I might add), “The wine is actually fruity, which some people interpret as sweet, but it’s not ‘sweet’ – technically it’s a dry wine.” 

I hope this clears up some confusion around dry versus sweet wines, and as always, please feel free to e-mail me at at any time if you have questions about anything you read here.


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About The Author

Kimberly Houston


2 Responses to “Wine Basics: Dry Versus Sweet and What It All Means, in 5 Easy Steps”

  1. Michael says:

    I hear you sister! I get this quite often at the store & it’s always a touch & go type of situation. What I’ve given myself over to is the fact that many will interpret certain aspects of wine as “sweetness” & its difficult if not impossible to dissuade them of that. I do all the explaining but at the end of the day I just try my best to steer customers to what they want. Although there are many times when I practically force people to try something because I just KNOW they will like it. The things we do for our adoring public, no?

  2. You said it! It IS very difficult to dissuade someone of something they feel sure they know. And I struggle with this all the time — walking the fine line between not making the customer feel wrong, or dumb about wine, and helping them learn stuff that will actually help them more accurately identify what they DO like. Hell, I’m still dumb about alot of wine stuff myself, compared to a some of the other people I work with.

    Yep, sometimes you have to suck it up and help them figure out what they like, and not tell them “it’s actually fruity, not sweet.” ; )

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