When it comes to picking out a wine that fits your taste, few moments are as disappointing as when you take a sip and find out it’s sweet instead of dry, or vice versa. While it’s pretty easy to pick a bottle of red or white off the shelf, it’s harder to determine the level of sweetness.

Armed with some wine knowledge, you can navigate the duality of dry to sweet like a professional. Read on to learn more about the source of a wine’s sweetness, how to identify different levels of sweetness, and how to decode the label to check for a wine’s inherent sweetness.

Sugar Makes Everything Sweet

It’s no surprise that the secret to confectionary anything is sugar. For wine, the level of sweetness comes from residual sugar, the natural sugars found in grapes that remain once the fermentation process is complete.

During the fermentation process, yeast feeds on sugar, creating ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. Fermentation stops once all the sugar has been digested, or the alcohol content reaches 15 percent, whichever comes first. The sugar content of the grapes dictates the alcohol percentage of the completed wine.

There are two types of fermentable sweeteners in grapes: glucose and fructose. The remaining levels of glucose and fructose determine the palatability of the wine. Glucose ferments fast, and fructose is twice as sweet. These differences in characteristics make it possible to detect a slight variation in the sweetness of wines that have the same residual sugar due to a higher level of lingering, sweeter fructose.

The ice wine-making process is slightly different. Only cold climates (lucky us!) can produce an authentic ice wine, and the availability of ice-wine is completely at the mercy of Mother Nature. Ice wine is made from grapes that have been left on the vine to freeze. The ideal temperature is 20 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Once this outside temperature has been reached, the grapes are picked by hand or machine. Because of both government regulations on the production of ice wine and the limited quantity of grapes frozen on the vine, this delectable drink is typically more expensive than traditional wines. 

In addition to naturally fermenting the sugar found in grapes, winemakers can add sugar to increase alcohol content during the process. This technique is called Chaptalization, named after French chemist Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal.

Lingo of Confection

There are five varying levels of sweetness based on residual sugar measured by grams of sugar per liter. For context, a gram of sugar is approximately ¼ of a teaspoon. Reading a wine list, you might notice the following descriptors to convey the level of sweetness.

  • Bone dry contains less than 1 gram of sugar per liter
  • Dry has 1-10 grams of sugar per liter
  • Off/Semi-dry has 10-35 grams per liter
  • Medium/Semi-sweet has 35-120 grams per liter
  • Sweet has 120-220 grams per liter

Other factors that add to the perception of sweetness are tannins, acidity, and alcohol perception.

Tannin is more of a characteristic of the total taste of wine than a flavor. Tannins are derived from the grape skin, seeds, and stems, and contribute to the dryness of the wine. You’ve probably experienced that drying sensation before from nibbling on dark chocolate, taking a sip of black tea, or chowing down on walnuts.

Acidity is the puckering, tart, and sour taste you get from eating a slice of lemon. Acid brightens up a wine, red or white; otherwise, the flavors would fall flat. Cold climates tend to produce more acidic grapes than warmer climates.

Your genes determine your perception of the taste of alcohol. Most people will experience a neutral flavor, while a quarter of people will experience bitterness, and another quarter will experience sweetness. While you might find one wine to be absolutely fantastic, based on the factors described, someone else might have a completely different experience with the same wine.

Wine Selection

Residual sugar tells you where the wine falls on the sweetness scale. When holding a bottle of wine, look for the percentage of RS. The higher the rate of RS, the sweeter. The lower the RS, the drier. 

  • Bone dry: RS of 1 percent or less
  • Dry/Off and Semi-Dry: RS of 1-3 percent, give 6 Mile’s Riesling a go at 1.5 percent RS
  • Sweet: RS of 3 percent or more
  • Port/Sherry: RS of 5-15 percent
  • Dessert/ice: RS of 10-20 percent, try out Sparkling Pond’s Ice Wine with a 15 percent RS