Wines are categorized by color, whether they’re bubbly, how much sugar they contain, and their “body.” Knowing more about these factors is key to choosing a wine you will enjoy.
But what makes wine sweet or dry? The obvious answer is the sugar content, but in winemaking, the amount of sugar in wine doesn’t depend on how many spoons are added.
Here’s everything you need to know about what makes wine sweet or dry.
Elements of Wine That Create Sweetness and Dryness
Making good wine is a complicated process, and vintners must factor in many aspects to create something worth drinking. The following details all have a significant factor in the final outcome of sweet or dry wine:
Grapes that grow in hotter climates usually have a higher sugar content than their counterparts developing in cooler ones. The sun’s warmth boosts sugar concentration in the water inside the grapes.
More mature grapes contain more sugar. So, picking them when they’re younger will make the wine drier. Harvesting before the grapes have developed fully yields a wine with lower sugar levels after fermentation.
Vintners wanting more sweetness in their wine may dry grapes in direct sunlight to concentrate whatever sugar’s present. Interestingly, grapes grown in vineyards in cooler climates will let the fruit remain on the vine until they freeze. Then, when they get harvested, the resultant water from these grapes has higher sugar levels.
These higher sugar levels also play a role in a wine’s antioxidant capacity and the amount of trans-resveratrol, catechin, and epicatechin a bottle contains. Sweet white wine has nearly two times the antioxidant capacity of dry white.
The Fermentation Process
The last step in the winemaking process is one of the most powerful determinants of the final product’s sweetness or dryness. How long grapes are left to ferment influences what percentage of sugar becomes alcohol, with the longer they’re left controlling how dry the wine will eventually be.
The Wine Tasters’ Perception
Genetics play a role in how we perceive the sweetness or dryness of the wine we’re tasting. Variations in our taste receptor genes will cause certain flavors, like sweetness, to stand out more than others. But there’s not a huge difference in how we perceive wines on a day-to-day level.
What’s classified as dry or sweet usually tastes that way to most drinkers because of three important factors:
Not to be confused with tannins, the acidity of a wine will significantly impact its flavor and how it feels in your mouth. The more immature a grape is, the more acid it contains, and the drier it will end up tasting.
The length of the fermentation process determines the level of alcohol content in wine. The sugar content of the grapes gets reduced, turning to alcohol, making drier wines stronger than their sweet equivalents.
Tannins are what we call the organic substance found in grape seeds, skins, and stems. They’re bitter-tasting and bind to the proteins in our saliva, causing us to experience dryness.
The precise degree of this feeling can vary from one person to another. But the more tannins in a bottle of wine, the drier it will seem.
Are You a Fan of Sweet or Dry Wine?
According to a recent survey, the most popular variety of wine in the USA is semi-sweet, with 45% of participants preferring it. 38% of respondents opt for sweet wine, and 36% like dry. Depending on how much you know about wines, you may already have formed a preference for sweet or dry varieties.
Let’s look at the most popular examples of sweet and dry wines. Maybe you recognize one of your favorites right off the bat:
Top Classically Sweet Wines
- Ice Wine/Eiswein: A late-harvest wine from grapes left on the vine long past the end of the growing season.
- Moscato/Muscato: A fizzy, rosé, or sweet wine, Moscato boasts a low-alcohol content and pairs very well with appetizers and desserts.
- Riesling: This sweet wine has a very fruity palate.
- Port: A very popular dessert wine because it’s so rich. Port comes from Portugal.
- Vouvray: Created from Chenin Blanc grapes, Vouvray wines can range from sweet to dry and maybe still or sparkling.
Popular Classically Dry Wines
- Cabernet Sauvignon: An accidental breeding in the 1600s of a red Cabernet Franc and a white Sauvignon Blanc grape gave us Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Malbec: Grown mostly in Argentina, Malbec is a full-bodied red and features a dark, plump fruit taste with a smoky finish.
- Merlot: Famous for its approachable, sensual, soft texture and style, the red-skinned grapes that make Merlot adapt easily to various climates.
- Pinot Noir: This wine is dry and light-bodied. It is also smoother and easier to drink than other red wines.
- Tempranillo: Medium- to full-bodied, with low acidity and deep ruby color. Tempranillo includes flavors like cherry, herbs, raspberry, strawberry, and vanilla.
Benjamin Franklin states, “The discovery of a wine is of greater moment than the discovery of a constellation. The universe is too full of stars.”
Trust your taste buds, and learn as much as possible about the wines you like and those you don’t. You could be just around the corner from finding your new favorite sweet or dry wine.