What Makes Wine Dry or Sweet?
By: Anya Myrphy
Have you ever found yourself feeling hopelessly confused in the wine aisle at the grocery store? Does it feel like every time you decide to branch out and try a different bottle it feels like playing a game of wine roulette? Like whatever you pick could be either totally gross or totally life changing and usually ends up being just meh. In an effort to avoid feeling like you’re flavor gambling and find something you actually enjoy drinking, I’ve put together this flavor guide.
It's all about the grapes
What makes a wine dry or sweet has to do with the grapes: where they were grown, the weather conditions, when they were picked, how they were barreled, and what the fermentation process was like. All of these things combine to leave a certain amount of residual, leftover sugars from the grapes themselves in the final product. When wine is fermented, yeast is added to the grape juice. The yeast feeds on the natural sugars from the grapes to promote fermentation and to create alcohol, and the leftover sugars create the flavors that we can identify as “dry” or “sweet.” Dry wines are fermented longer, and so they have less sugar and a higher alcohol content. Sweet wines are fermented for a shorter period of time and have a lower alcohol content.
What You Taste: Dry Wines
A common sensation from drinking dry wines is a dryness or puckery feeling in your mouth, which is one of the main complaints from people who prefer sweet wines. You feel this because dry wines have an astringent property to them that reacts with your saliva. Dry red wines have more tannins, which are why they might have a slight bitterness. Tannins are also what creates that fun mouth dryness that some people love and some people hate. If you hate the funky dry feeling, it might be a good idea to pick out a sweeter bottle. (Don’t worry, we’ll get into stuff you should try later on!)
“Dry” doesn’t necessarily mean sweet flavors aren’t present – it just means there’s less sugar. You can still taste fruit and florals in your dry wines; I personally like mid-range to dry wines that have dark fruit flavors. If this sounds like you, I promise there are some recommendations for you down below too.
Dry wines might smell much different than they taste, but giving them time to open up will change the flavor of the wine and may make it more appetizing if it feels too aggressive from the first sip. Another thing to keep in mind is that dry wines usually have a higher alcohol by volume (ABV), but not always. The alcohol content will likely impact the flavor of whatever wine you’re choosing, too. Red wines tend to have higher tannin levels, and that means higher alcohol levels that give them a more balanced taste. White wines have lower tanning levels and that means lower alcohol levels, but of course there are always going to be exceptions to the rule.
What You Taste: Sweet Wines
Sweet wines often taste much more like they smell, and their fruit and floral flavors are much more in-your-face. They’re usually lighter and taste like ripe fruits, think peaches or strawberries. Sweet wines have a lower ABV but this might not always be reflected in what you taste. Like we learned before, sweet reds might be higher in ABV than sweet whites. There’s more sugar leftover from the fermentation process in white wines, so the wine has less alcohol and more of a sugary flavor. When you think sweet wine, think delicate flavors, like fruits, herbs, and florals and a taste that is probably closer to the smell than that of dryer wines.
What flavor profile you enjoy in a wine is going to be totally up to your individual taste buds and your typical alcohol consumption. At the end of the day, you like what you like! If you’re a sweet wine person, then drink sweet wine, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
So, Let’s Talk Bottles: Ladies of Leisure Edition
Now that you know the science behind the flavor profile of the bottle you’re choosing, let’s figure out which wines fall into what categories, and which of the Ladies of Leisure wines might be a good fit for you!
If you go for dry white wines, you’ll want to stick to Sauv Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay. Sexy Sauv is a clean, crisp, dry white wine from Sonoma, CA with lots of citrus flavors and flavor that builds with every sip. It’s refreshing, light, and pairs equally well with cheese and whatever outfit makes you feel sexy – sweats or that little black dress.
If dry reds are more your speed, try a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, or Malbec. Red blends can be a great place to start if you’re trying to figure out what you like. Racy Red is a blend of dry Barbera, sweet Zinfandel, and dry Syrah, with bright flavors and deep tones that create a smooth and silky blend.
European rosés tend to be a little more on the drier side as compared to others. When looking for dry wines, look for ones that are made in France, especially Bordeaux, Italy, Spain, and the US. Zero F’s Given Rosé is for you if you enjoy the balance between bold and delicate, without wanting to be boxed into a category. It’s vibrant and has notes of stone fruits and bold tropical flavors.
If your palate is for sweet wines, your whites will be White Zinfandel, Moscato, and Riesling, whereas you might like Lambrusco, Shiraz, or Port wines if you’re more into reds. Rosés made outside of Europe are generally more on the sweet side. Sweet wines have some historic production locations: the Duoro Valley in Spain, the Tokaj wine region in Hungary, Sauternes in France, and Pantelleria in the Mediterranean. They’re also made in Washington State, Michigan, and New York, as well as Australia.
If you’re trying to navigate champagne, remember that the labeling (and the production) is totally different. Brut Nature is the driest champagne, followed by Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, and Demi Sec being the sweetest.
Hopefully, now you feel like you’re a little bit more prepared when you walk into the wine aisle – I know I am!