By Jimmy Quaile,

Certified Sommelier

What’s the Difference Between Sweet Wine and Dry Wine?

Answer: Sweet wine tastes sweet and dry is the opposite of sweet.

The end.

Ok Ok, lets start with a little wine science; Grapes have natural yeast. During fermentation, the yeast eat the sugar and alcohol is the by-product. Therefore, the higher the alcohol ~ the dryer the wine.

To make sweet wine a winemaker can stop the sugar from turning into alcohol, leaving residual sugar in the wine. They could also pick the grapes later (“Late Harvest”) when they are fully ripe and have the most natural sugar. Then again they could just add sugar! They have a fancy word for that. It’s called Chaptilization. There are a few other tricks to making sweet wine.

  • Drying the grapes in the sun will concentrate the sugars (Think of a raisin).
  • They can let the grapes freeze on the vine before being picked and pressed. The frozen water stays with the grape, leaving just the sweet condensed juice to be fermented. ICE wine!

They can let the grapes rot! Oddly known as “Noble Rot”, this controlled wine fungus called Botrytis removes water from the grape, intensifies the sweetness level and adds complexity to the wine.


Remember, what you think is sweet or dry may not match the bottle’s labeling of sweet or dry…if it’s on the label at all! Most new wine drinkers mix up the words “fruity” and “sweet”. Don’t confuse the absence of sweetness with the absence of fruit. Pinot Noir, for example can be quite fruity but dry. Another palate misconception is Tannin. The astringent sensation coming from the skins, seeds and stems is often confused with levels of dryness.

Now comes the over-used term “Semi-sweet” and the more confusing “Off-dry”. Even if the wine label states the sweetness level, everyone’s perception of sweet is different. Both terms refer to the percentage of residual sugar remaining in the wine after fermentation and not a professional wine taster’s opinion. Making a customer recommendation for semi-sweet wine is as hard as predicting his or her favorite color. It is reassuring to know that even the most seasoned wine lover will not detect residual sugar levels in wine because of other factors. Acidity levels change perception of sweetness in wine in the same way eating a lemon can overpower any amount of sugar.

Dry or sweet, when all is said and done, wine is about personal preference. Drink the wine you like and enjoy the sweetness of life that is wine.

Is This Wine Sweet? What’s the Difference Between Sweet Wine and Dry Wine?
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