Dry wine: understanding sweetness in wine

dry wine and sweet wine

Dry and Sweet Wines - An Exploration

Author: Jack Grey

In this entry we will delve into the topic of different types of wine, focussing on: dry and sweet options. This feature will cover definitions of dry wine, some different ways producers control the sweetness/dryness of their wines, various examples of each style, several mouthwatering food and wine pairing ideas, and, finally, an experiment that you can try at home.

Defining Dry wine and Sweet wine

Firstly, we need a definition of what is meant by dry and sweet wines. Dry can be quite a misleading term, so remember, your wine is still going to be wet!

To explain, we must first of all remind ourselves of the fermentation process for wine:

Sugar (from the grapes) + Yeast => Carbon Dioxide + Alcohol

Differing amounts of Residual Sugar can also be left over in the wine after this reaction. Basically, a wine that contains more Residual Sugar will be sweet or sweeter, while a wine with less will be dry or drier depending on the amount of sugar remaining. Another key point here is that there are not just sweet and dry options. There is a whole range between the two, conditional on the amount of Residual Sugar left in the wine. Don’t forget, also, that dry wines can still have a very small amount of sugar left, technically less than 4 g/L.

So how is it done?

Next on our list to answer is how producers make wines with different levels of sweetness in wine or Residual Sugar. Several of the main methods are explained below:

  • The key way of controlling sweetness in wines is through the amount of fermentation time during production. Ending fermentation early leaves more residual sugar, thus creating a sweet wine. This is because the sugar and yeast have not had time to completely finish their reaction, so some sugar is left over.
  • Secondly, one can use the maturity of the grape. The more mature or ripe the fruit itself, the more sugar it possesses, sometimes too much for the fermentation to be completed! 
  • A third option open to winemakers is drying the grapes in the sun to increase their sweetness/sugar levels. Freezing the grapes also has the same effect - this is the case of ice wine.
Dry and Sweet wine Examples

Personally, I love sweet wines and have tried a wide variety. Examples include everything from South African Constantia, Canadian Ice Wine, Port, and Hungarian Tokaji to the classic French Sauternes. My choice offering, so far, is the latter. I am yet to find a sweet wine that beats it!

Now, for some of my favourite dry wines. I am a big fan of Pinot Noir from Burgundy and New Zealand, also Red Bordeaux wines, which are made primarily from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and for other dry Cabernet Sauvignons I look to California. In terms of dry white wines, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are two of the obvious contenders for me, and can be found in a variety of regions.

Stanlake Park, too, has a wide range of dry wine examples, such as the Bacchus, any of the reds or the Pinot Noir Rosé, actually pretty much all of them! But we also have an off-dry option in our Madeleine. Off-dry simply means that the wine has slightly more Residual Sugar content than a dry alternative.

Check our Madeleine wine »


Food Pairing Possibilities

Firstly, let’s focus on the sweet wines. The main thing to remember here is that you need a food that can match up to the Residual Sugar content of the wine. So most savoury main courses will not cut it. When food pairing for a Sauternes or a Tokaji for example, you should think along the lines of desserts such as Crème Brûlée, Tarte Tatin, and Panna Cotta. Alternatively, if you are a Port fan, this always goes well with blue cheeses.

Now, to whet your appetite, here are just a few tasty examples for dry wine options. You will want to avoid any of those previous sugary suggestions. One possibility for a Red Bordeaux is a rather meaty, savoury dish such as slow-roasted lamb shoulder with rosemary (this would actually be in my top three combinations). A Chardonnay-based Chablis from the Burgundy region is also an excellent match up to oysters and, if those aren’t to your taste, it would be lovely with creamy fish dishes. There are of course plenty of other pairings out there!

A Dry to Sweet Experiment

I do love a good experiment, although nothing too technical. This particular test will help if you want more practical experience of the different styles of dry and sweet wines. My proposition is to sample a range of Rieslings. These start from a dry wine versions and go all the way to sweet offerings, so you can get a really good idea of how the residual sugar affects the final product through first hand tasting. This also demonstrates what was stated in the definition about the range of sweetness levels.

Summing up

What have we learnt? Quite a lot really: what defines a dry wine or a sweet wine, the methods for creating these different styles, some examples (including from Stanlake Park), pairing suggestions, and a rather sip-intensive and, hopefully, illuminating experiment!

We would love to hear from you as well. So if you have any especially saliva-inducing or quirky pairing ideas, or even other experiments to try, then do let us know in the comments section below. Keep Tasting!

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