When talking about wine and its taste, you will hear many fancy terms such as tannic, acidic, or bold. Many wine lovers also use the word “dry” when describing their favorite wines. And some might even refuse to drink wine that is not dry. But what does it actually mean? What is a dry wine and how can you recognize a dry wine?

Dry wine is the opposite of sweet wine. That means that dry wine contains only very little residual sugar and it is not perceivable sweet. 

Typically, wines that contain 10 grams of sugar per liter or less are called dry. But regional wine rules might prescribe slightly different rules. In this article, we will discuss the most popular dry wines.

What Is Residual Sugar in Wine?

Residual sugar is the natural sugar in grapes that didn’t transform into alcohol during the fermentation process. Chemically speaking, the term residual sugar summarizes different types of sugar, such as Glucose, Fructose, and others. All of them contribute to the sweetness of the wine.

What Makes a Wine Dry?

Three factors determine the dryness of wine: The sugar content of the grapes, the climate, and the fermentation process.

Winemakers use hundreds of different varietals to produce wine. Some of them are naturally sweeter than others, even when grown in the same circumstances. Typically, red grapes tend to be sweeter than white grapes, although there are exceptions.

The climate and the time that the grapes spend on the vines determine their sugar content significantly. The longer they ripen and the more hours of sunshine they enjoy, the more sugar they will contain. So grapes that grow in the warm climate of the New World (countries like the USA, Australia, or Chile) typically are sweeter than those from the Old World (Europe), even if the varietal is the same.

During the fermentation process, vintners can alter the level of dryness of the wine. After harvesting and crushing the grapes, they add yeast to the wine must. This yeast transforms the sugar into alcohol. The more time the yeast has for this purpose, the less residual sugar will remain in the wine (and the higher will be the alcohol content).

Big Fermentation Container Filled with Red Wine Must

Fermentation Container Filled with Red Wine Must

If winemakers want to create a sweet wine, they can stop the fermentation process early. One way to do so is by lowering the temperature of the fermentation container. Alternatively, they can add strong spirits like brandy to the wine. Both actions cause the yeast to die, so the transformation of sugar into alcohol stops.

In contrast, vintners can produce dry wine intentionally by not interrupting the fermentation.

Wine Classification by Sweetness

Wine lovers classify their wines by the sugar level they contain, typically stated in grams per liter. You can find several charts with different rules. Let’s have a look at some of them.

Wine Sweetness Classification in the United States

There are no laws that instruct vintners to label their wines according to their sugar content in the United States. Nevertheless, wine lovers have a more or less consistent system of classifying wines. It recognizes six levels of sweetness, respectively dryness:

  • Bone Dry: less than 1 gram of residual sugar per liter
  • Dry: 1 – 10 g
  • Off-Dry: 11 – 35 g
  • Semi-Sweet / Medium Dry: 36 – 50 g
  • Sweet: 50 – 120 g
  • Very Sweet: more than 120 g

Wine Sweetness Classification in the European Union

The European Union has defined a standard classification system for wines from Italy, France, and the other big European wine countries. It differs four levels of sweetness based on the sugar content and the ratio of sugar to acidity.

Residual Sugar per Liter or Wine
English Nomination
French Nomination
German Nomination
Italian Nomination
4g max. OR 9g if acid content is max. 2g below sugar content
secco / asciutto
12g max. OR 18g if acid content is max. 10g below sugar content
medium dry
45g max.
medium sweet
more than 45g
süß / süss

Wine Nomination by Sugar Level in the European Union

European winemakers don’t have to use these nominations on the labels of their bottles, though. Especially for medium sweet and sweet wines, they often avoid them for marketing reasons because these terms have a bad reputation.

Sparkling Wine Sweetness Classification in the European Union

E.U. laws also regulate the nomination of sparkling wines. In contrast to wine, the sparkling wine classification system differs seven levels of sweetness.

Residual Sugar per Liter or Wine
English Nomination
French Nomination
German Nomination
Italian Nomination
3g max. AND no added sugar
brut nature
pas dóse / dosage zéro
dossiago zero
0g - 6g
extra brut
extra brut
extra herb
extra bruto
less than 12g
12g - 17g
extra dry
extra sec
extra trocken
extra secco
17g - 32g
secco / asciutto
32g - 50g
medium dry
more than 50g

Sparkling Wine Nomination by Sugar Level in the European Union

Why Do Some Dry Wines Taste Sweet?

The perceived sweetness that you taste can differ from the actual sweetness determined by the residual sugar. The reason is that other components affect your perception of sweetness.

In some cases, wine tastes less sweet than it is. For instance, a high-tannin wine will taste less sweet than a low-tannin wine, even if they contain the same amount of residual sugar. The same can be true for high acidity wines. Their acids are so aggressive that they completely cover the sweetness.

Occasionally, you might experience the opposite: Your senses tell you that wine tastes sweet, although its bottle label says that it’s a dry wine. The reason is your brain, or more specifically, your memory: It links distinct aromas with sweetness, for instance, cherries or strawberries. If you sense one of these aromas in wine, your brain tells you that it’s sweet. That can happen even if it contains only very little sugar.

Can Wine Be Completely Dry?

There is no wine that is free of residual sugar. The reason is that some types of sugar in grapes are unfermentable. The yeast simply can’t transform them into alcohol. One example of unfermentable sugar is pentose. Thus, even dry wine contains at least a little residual sugar.

Which Red Wines Are Dry?

You can find many great dry red wines from all around the world. Here are some of the most popular styles:

  • The Bordeaux region is the largest wine region in France. It’s famous for its high-quality red wines that are typically high in tannins and full-bodied. Bordeaux wines are made from several varietals, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.
  • Burgundy is another well-known wine region in France. It’s famous for its dry red wines from Pinot Noir grapes. They tend to have earthy aromas and flavors of red berries, tobacco, and mushrooms.
  • Chianti comes from the Tuscany region in central Italy. Most Chianti wines are blends of Canaiolo and Sangiovese grapes. They can be light- to full-bodied and often come with fruity aromas and significant acidity.

In addition to the popular wines mentioned above, wines made from the following varietals typically are dry as well:

Which White Wines Are Dry?

If you prefer whites over reds, you have a great variety of dry wines to choose from too. These are some examples:

  • Sauvignon Blanc is probably the most popular white varietal, and you can find Sauvignon Blanc wines from all around the world. They often have citrus flavors such as lemon, lime, or grapefruit. Try a Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region in New Zealand, for example.
  • Dry Riesling wines from Germany, especially from the Pfalz region, tend to be very good. You can also find great dry styles from Austria or the French Alsace region. Young Riesling comes with high acidity and citrus flavors. Aged wines are less acidic but provide more complex aromas.
  • One of the most popular white wines from Italy is Pinot Grigio. These refreshing wines come from the Northern part of the country, particularly from the regions of Friuli, Lombardy, and Trentino. They offer aromas of green apples, lemon, and honeysuckle.

You can find many other dry whites from all around the world. Look out for wines made from the following grapes:

  • Chardonnay
  • Grüner Veltliner
  • Albariño
  • Muscadet
  • Semillon
Bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, a Dry Wine from Chile

Bottle of Sauvignon Blanc

Final Words

The difference between sweet and dry wine is one that splits the wine community. Dry wines have many fans and rightly so. To fully understand dry wines, try different styles yourself, and find out which type you like best. Have fun!