How Do You Know If a Wine Is Dry?

How Do You Know If a Wine Is Dry

With all the different varieties of wines, it may be difficult to understand the differences between different types of wine, especially when words typically used for other foods or beverages, are used with a technical meaning in wine. For example, some wines may be described as dry.

How do you know if a wine is dry?

Dry wines are wines that have fermented most or all of the sugar in the grape juice. Grape juice before being fermented is called must in winemaking. During the fermentation process, yeast will eat the sugar in the must to produce alcohol until no more sugar is left. Dry wines will not taste sweet like sugar but can taste fruity.

Read below to help you understand what makes a wine dry, and how to identify a dry wine.

The Taste and Feel of Dry Wine

The term dry refers to the amount of sugar left in the wine (known as residual sugar) after the fermentation process has stopped. Less than 10 grams per litre  of residual sugar and a wine is considered dry, more than 30 grams per litre and the wine is sweet.

Some people may confuse the concept of dry wine with a wine that may be tart tasting, bitter, boozy, or even if it dries out their mouth. However, none of these ideas are related to sugar, and therefore not related to being dry. A dry wine may still be fruity, floral, and even be smooth to drink. 

A wine that might have a bitter flavor, or dries out your mouth, may be high in tannins. Tannins are extracted from the skin, seeds, and stems of the grapes. It can also be imparted by the barrels where the wine ages. A dry wine can be low in tannins, or could also be very high in tannins. 

Dry wines can also have a range of alcohol contents as the amount of available sugar for fermentation (potential alcohol) is related to ripeness of the grapes at picking.  A wine that has a lot of residual sugar will be considered sweet, but may not necessarily have a lower alcohol content.  

How Wine Ferments

Grapes contain glucose and fructose, two types of sugars. When yeast eats these sugars, the sugar is turned into ethanol, carbon dioxide, and heat. The yeast will eat these sugars at different rates with glucose fermenting roughly twice as quickly as fructose. Eventually the alcohol in the wine will begin to kill the yeast that produced it, meaning grapes that are picked with a very high amount of sugar might have a high amount of residual sugar, and high alcohol and not be able to be fermented out farther using standard wine yeast.

The amount of residential sugar can be measured using a tool called a hydrometer. Commonly found in a high school chemistry class, a hydrometer measures the specific gravity of the wine. The specific gravity of water is approximately 1.0. If the winemaker let the wine dry out completely, then the specific gravity of the wine may drop below 1.0. 

Winemakers can control how sweet or dry a wine is by allowing a fermentation to complete or stopping the fermentation. The fermentation process can be stopped by dropping the temperature till the yeast become inactive, by adding Potassium metabisulfite (commonly called KMBS)  which can kill the yeast, or even through flash pasteurization, though this is uncommon in small wineries. 

Unless the wine is considered bone dry, then there will be some residual sugar even in a dry wine. However, the amount of sugars is likely not perceptible to most people. 

What Wines are Dry?

Not all wines include descriptions on their bottles to help buyers to know what to expect. For some people still learning all the different varieties of wines, we recommend starting with one or two wines you know you like, then trying wines with similar qualities. 

Here is a helpful guide to understanding if some of the most popular types of wine are considered dry or sweet, or somewhere in between. 

White Red Sparkling
Bone Dry Sauvignon Blanc Chianti Extra Brut
Dry Pinot Grigio Burgundy Brut
Medium Moscato Zinfandel Prosecco
Sweet Dessert Wine Port Moscato d’Asti

Other Flavors in Dry Wines

The absence of sugar does not mean that the wine will be lacking in flavor. Even if a wine is dry, other flavors or aromas in the wine will still provide a pleasurable experience, and may even cause the wine to taste sweet, even if it has little to no residual sugar. 

Many grape varieties will impact other fruity flavors in the final wine, such as apple, pear, pineapple, papaya, or melon. Some dry wine varieties may even have herbal or earthy flavors, such as grass. 

Some flavors may be imparted into the wine from the barrels where the wine ages. Some barrels may have lighter levels of toasting on the inside, while others are closer to being charred, like those used for whiskey or bourbon.

Different types of wood used to build the barrels will have different flavors. Flavors that come from the barrels might include vanilla, burnt sugar, or dried fruit, while aromas from barrels include smoke, pepper, or vanilla.

To properly enjoy any wine, ensure that you enjoy the wine at the recommended temperature, from the correct glass for the style of wine, and properly decant the wine if recommended for the style wine to allow it to breathe. 

For example, to enjoy a dry white wine like an oaky Chardonnay, properly chill the wine to about 50F, then pour into a white wine glass with a larger bowl. By comparison, a Chianti should be served between 55-60F, from a red wine glass with a smaller bowl and narrower opening, to funnel the aroma toward the nose when enjoying. 

The taste of the wine can change as it moves through the mouth. The best way to experience all the flavor notes in the wine is to first smell the aroma at the opening of the glass, taste and hold the wine briefly and hold at the front of the mouth, then slowly swallow, allowing the wine to pass over the tongue. 

In summary, dry wines have little residual sugar. However, different flavors and aromas may be experienced in the absence of sugar. Take the time to properly chill and serve your dry wine to ensure that you have the full experience of the wine as it was intended by the winemaker. Even if you tend to prefer sweeter wines, you may find a dry wine that you enjoy!