What Does It Mean When A Wine Is “Dry?”

What Does It Mean When A Wine Is "Dry?"

We often hear wine described as “dry.” But what does this mean? How can a liquid be. . .dry? Learning the use of this descriptor will help you when purchasing wines (especially wines you cannot sample before purchase) and will expand your knowledge of wine vocabulary.

The definition of the word “dry” changes depending on whether you reference red or white wine. In white wines, dryness refers to the amount of sugar in the wine. In red wines, dryness refers to the amount of tannin in the wine. Read on to learn more about both.

Dryness In White Wines

During the winemaking process, yeasts convert sugary grape juice into alcohol, and wine is born. Sometimes, not all of these glucose and fructose sugars are converted into alcohol, which means the wine has leftover (residual) sugar. This is what creates sweetness in wine.

When describing white wine, “dryness” refers to the wine’s amount of residual sugar. Therefore, a wine with less sugar is “dry.” Its opposite is a wine described as “sweet.”

How much sugar constitutes a wine being dry or sweet? Technically speaking, wines with fewer than 10 grams of sugar per liter are considered dry, while sweet/dessert wines have a whopping 30 grams of sugar per liter. (For reference, a sugar cube contains roughly 2.8 grams of sugar.) Everything in between this 10 – 30 grams/liter measurement is considered “off-dry.”

There are some wines which are nearly always produced in a dry style. For example, Italian Pinot Grigio and Spanish Albarino are all dry––and EU laws governing wine production and wine sugar content ensure that these wines remain so. Other wines may waffle between being dry or off-dry. These include New World Chardonnay (which is made in an abundance of styles), Rieslings (which can be crafted as a sweeter white wine or a more acidic, food-friendly, dry white wine), and Viognier. Other wines, such as late harvest Riesling or the famous dessert wine from Sauternes, are classically sweet: the grapes are not picked until they have turned to grapes on the vine, and the subsequent wines are syrupy in texture and taste.

Of course, when tasting any wine, personal preferences and tastes come into play. You might consider a wine to be more sweet than another person, particularly with wines that can be made in the dry or off-dry styles. Keep your preferences in mind as you shop for wines, and let your professional wine consultant know what your preferences are when it comes to sweetness in these varietals with malleable style.

Dryness In Red Wines

Dryness in red wines can reference the amount of sugar in the wine. (Look no further than a Port wine, for example, which is incredibly sweet, and which one would never describe as dry!) In most cases, however, a red wine’s sweetness also refers to the amount of acid (and therefore, the presence of astringency) in wine.

Red wines on the opposite end of the “sweet” spectrum are often described as “bone dry.” These include wines with heavy tannins, little sweetness, and a bitter finish, such as Tannat, Italian Sagrantino, Italian Nebbiolo, and French Malbec. Slightly less dry (but still considered “bone dry” wines include wines that are much more popular: Italy’s famed Chianti, France’s Bordeaux, and Spain’s Rioja wines all fall under this category.

Red wines described as “dry” (not “bone dry”) can range in aromas and flavors. Alongside this dryness, wines may have vegetal and herbaceous characteristics (think Cabernet Franc), tart fruits (think French Rhone blends or Burgundy), riper fruits and spices (consider Spanish Garnacha or California Merlot), or jammy fruits and vanilla (such as California Zinfandel or Petite Sirah or Australian Shiraz). Alongside these varying flavors and aromas, each of these wines exude a dryness from their present tannins.

In essence, really, all red wines that are not made to be dessert wines have some quality of dryness. What does this mean when purchasing wines? Recognize that a red wine described as “dry” can also be tart and acidic or jammy and rich. Focus on the other descriptors of this wine to hone in on its qualities and its potential pairings.

Now that you’ve gotten your feet wet when it comes to “dry” wine descriptors, check out some of Quigley Fine Wines’ beautiful crafted red and white wines. Our professional wine consultants are here to help guide you through the purchasing process. Your next “favorite new wine” is waiting for you!