Some people like sweet wines and others like dry wines but what exactly does that mean… and what is the difference between one dry wine and another?
In the shortest possible way of defining a wine’s level of dryness you should know that dry wines have little to no residual sugars remaining in them whereas sweeter wines still have residual sugar left even after the winemaker has bottled the wine.
The driest commonly sold red wines tend to be, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Merlot although there are always a few exceptions and caveats to explore.
Before we discuss each of the dry reds let’s first reexamine the nuts and bolts of the wine making process and how a sweet grape transforms into a wine that contains little to no remaining sugar.
What is Dry Red Wine Anyway?
The term “dry” is one of the first words we use when talking about wines. It carries both technical and informal meanings to describe what is in your glass.
Technically, the term means that the red wine contains no residual sugar and therefore it is not sweet. During the fermentation process, yeast is used to convert the sugar in grapes to alcohol. To make a dry wine, the winemaker will allow the fermentation process to continue until the yeast has consumed all the sugar. If the winemaker stops the fermentation early before all the sugar is consumed, the wine is considered sweet because of the residual sugar.
Informally, the term is used to describe the sensation of “dryness” in the mouth after drinking a red wine that is not sweet. There’s dry and then there is tongue-twitching dry that leaves your mouth in a pucker. The tannins in the wine, together with its aroma, acidity, and alcohol content work together to create and vary this dry feeling.
Published charts vary somewhat, depending upon whether technical, informal, or both meanings are considered in the rating. All of the wines on this list are technically dry. They all have some level of tannins and the other factors that contribute to dryness. That being said, we all have different palates, making dryness a very personal sense.
The classic Old World Sangiovese is a rustic wine with distinct notes of bitter cherry, violets, and tea. Better known in Italy as Chianti, its grippy tannins are in the medium to high range and it has medium alcohol and high acidity. A young wine can have a savory tomato note that enhances its herbal component.
To bear the name Chianti it must be produced in the region and contain at least 80% Sangiovese. Most Italian Chiantis are 100% Sangiovese, but some winemakers like to blend in a little Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah to soften the finished wine.
New World Sangiovese from California have more red fruit flavors and spices. Argentine examples show juicy red fruit wines that end on a bitter cherry note, a hybrid of Tuscan and California styles.
Sangiovese is technically bone dry and the dryness factor is often present, even in the more fruit-forward styles.
Another rustic classic from the Old World, Tempranillo is Spain’s most popular grape. This “little early one” (the literal translation from Spanish) is the major component of the classic Rioja, ripening earlier than Garnacha its favorite blending partner.
The wine tends to be full-bodied with plenty of tannins and acidity. Tempranillo is savory and it is not known for a distinctive profile. The wide range of aromas and flavors can include tart and ripe red fruit, berries, plum, black currants, prunes, and cherries, to red flowers, savory herbs, vanilla, spice, earth, and tobacco.
It has a characteristic leather smell. Although there are many examples of young Tempranillos available, the grape takes well to oak aging, adding flavors of vanilla, spice, coconut, and sweet dill.
Tempranillo can adapt and thrive with dramatic changes in daily high and low temperatures. This no doubt contributes to the wide range and aromas associated with the wine as it develops characteristics of both cool and warm climates. As plantings increase these types of climates in the New World, look for winemakers to experiment with many different styles.
Cabernet Sauvignon, the beloved “king” of Bordeaux is known for its dark color, full body, and medium level of acidity. It has a healthy level of tannins and is a wonderful wine to drink with food. Wherever it is grown it expresses a powerful aroma of black currants. People have said they pick up the taste of green pepper in the wine, along with dark fruits such as cherries, tobacco, cassis, and a hint of vanilla.
Cabernet Sauvignon responds very well to oak aging,with beautiful new flavors emerging the longer it ages. In cooler climates such as Bordeaux, the wines can taste dry and rather austere even after seven or eight years. Here, Cabernet Sauvignon is not meant to be drunk young. Aging will slowly develop the subtly layered fruit hiding under all that structure.
In the New World, Cabernet Sauvignon is thriving in warmer climates such as California, Australia, and Chile which are suited to this late-ripening grape. These wines tend to be more fruit-forward and have a higher level of alcohol which can soften some of the dryness of the tannins. Aging in oak brings out pepper and vanilla notes.
Much-loved Pinot Noir is a perfect example of the technical definition of dry. It produces a fruit-forward, lighter-bodied, less tannic wine. Known as Burgundy in France, it is famous for its savory freshness. Savory from earthy “farmyard”aromas and notes of mushroom and herbs. Freshness from flavors of ripe red berries, sweet black cherries, strawberries, and blackberries.
Being lighter in style, Pinot Noir has benefited from a trend toward more restrained, less alcoholic wines. However, bigger, richer, and more fruit-forward styles are emerging from the New World (are you seeing a pattern here?) especially in California and New Zealand. These wines are leading toward Syrah or Malbec with more depth, tannins, and alcohol content.
Lighter in style does not mean sweet. Pinot Noir is a dry red wine with all the attributes.
Syrah originated in the Rhône region in France and is a savory full-bodied, inky dark wine.
It has firm tannins, brisk acidity, and medium to high alcohol levels.A wide range of flavors can be found, from red and black fruits, darker berries, and white and black pepper to herbs, violets, smoke, and bacon.
Moving to Australia, Syrah changed its name to Shiraz and altered its personality in the warmer climate of Barossa. Now a bold fruit-forward wine with concentrated jammy aromas and flavors of blueberry and blackberry, its tannins are ripe and soft. The black pepper spice, smoked meat notes, and bacon remain and the alcohol level tends to be a little higher. Other cooler regions of Australia are also producing excellent wines.
No matter the style, Syrah ages very well, softening the tannins and enhancing the flavors.
Mostly used as a blending wine with its partner Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux, this classic boasts red fruits, easy tannins, and a soft finish. A range of fresh flavors, such as plums, cherries, dark berries, mixed with cocoa, and black pepper notes often dominate. You can find vanilla and clove along with earthy undertones and smoke.
Merlot is a chameleon, changing its flavor profile depending on where it’s grown.
Cooler growing regions (France, Italy) showcase firm tannin structure and earthy notes. In blind tastings, cool-climate Merlot is sometimes confused with Cabernet.
From warmer regions (California, Chile), Merlot tends to be fruitier with softer, refined tannins. These wines are often aged in oak which adds vanilla, chocolate, and smoky cedar notes. bring out the ripe fruit character and silkier tannin structure.
Even though it has lots of fruit and fresh flavors, Merlot is a dry wine. Be careful not to confuse fruit with sweetness.