White with one: When is sweet not sweet, and dry still wet?

Chris Coffey
By Chris Coffey
almost 2 years ago
4 min read

Because honestly, what the f*ck is off-dry?

“That wine is bone dry.”

“What do you mean? My glass is half full!“

 “No, no, not the liquid, that’s wet. The wine is dry in terms of sugar level.”

“Huh?”

‘Dry’ wine – it’s a shit term. Doesn’t really make you want to go anywhere near it with your mouth, that’s for sure. But it’s the commonly accepted word for a wine with next to no sugar, so let me help you get your head around what the hell it means because we’re stuck with it.

It’s easy, as a technocrat, to resort to numbers because they’re a definite reference point, but how much residual sugar is left in a wine after fermentation isn’t the whole story. Whether a wine tastes sweet or not has to do with how much acid the wine has (the lower the acid of an otherwise identical wine, the sweeter the wine will taste) as well as alcohol (adds an impression of sweetness) and tannin (higher tannin will make a wine taste less sweet).

How sweet is this wine?

Well, that just got a whole lot more complex. Here’s how my wine mates (and I have many) relate to each other about sweet wine:

Dry: doesn’t taste like there’s any sugar in this wine.

Off-dry: doesn’t taste sweet per sé, more of an intensified fruit flavour that leaves you with an impression of a little bit of sugar. Often sweeter than you think, but with high acid so you don’t notice it as much. Good German Kabinett riesling is a good example of this, or a decent gewurztraminer.

Slightly sweet: noticeably sugary, but with enough acid and character in the wine to be an enjoyable wine in its own right, with or without food.

Sweet: dessert wine territory. You have to either be in the mood or have an insatiable sweet tooth. We’re talking moscato or late-harvest riesling.

Technically speaking

Numbers your thing? Here’s the gospel according to the European Union:

Dry: less than 4g/L sugar (or less than 9g/L if total acidity is within 2g/L of sugar level)

Medium Dry: less than 12g/L (or 18g/L if bla bla bla as above)

Medium (sweet): less than 45g/L

Sweet: 45g/L or more

So those are the numbers. Now what? Not every wine lists its sugar or acid levels, nor do I have time or intent to calculate every sweetness level of every bottle prior to purchase, and what do these levels taste like anyway? I just want to know how sweet this wine is that I’ve got in my hands without referring to a cheat sheet every time.

Here’s the low-down:

1) Wine is made by yeast converting sugar to alcohol. 

2) Sugar cannot be legally added to wine in Australia (and there are strict controls elsewhere), and grape concentrate (essentially legally allowed sugar) will only be added to crap wine.

3) 18 grams of sugar in grapes will generally convert to around 1% alcohol.

Therefore, any quality wine (let’s say with an RRP over $15) with an alcohol level of 13.5% or over will almost definitely be dry.

Sweetness by varietal

Reds: nearly always dry if they’re not sparkling or fortified. If they’re not, they’re probably very cheap and sugar is used to hide issues in wine flavour. These wines should be used in generous amounts to clean the nearest drain. 

Whites (except riesling): usually dry to a little bit sweet. If it’s a chardy, savvy b or semillon and over $10, you can pretty much guarantee that it’ll be dry or very close to. Pinot Gris, gewurztraminer or verdelho are often made in sweeter styles, so best ask someone in the know. 

Riesling: myriad styles exist of this noble grape and they’re all worth trying. It’s a grape that can get pretty ripe and 14% alc/vol is not unheard of. Even a Riesling with 13.5% alc/vol can be sweeter than you expect, but if it’s 12.5% or under, chances are it’s slightly sweet (to dessert wine territory under 11%). So ask your sommelier or vino attendant. It’s in their interests to not upset you with a wrong answer.

Rosé: from lolly water to pale dry reds, the pink stuff varies enormously. Alcohol volume is the best indicator on the bottle. If you want dry, again, look for 13.5% alc/vol or over.

Sparkling: this is dangerous territory. If you want dry, look for the word ‘brut’ (this means ‘dry’ in French). Anything else may be sweet, with various levels of sugar according to the whim of fermentation, winemakers and marketers. Champagne has legislation for sugar levels, from Extra Brut (very dry) through demi-sec (half dry) to doux, but no such strict definitions exist for other sparkling wine, even if they tend to use the same terms. Approach with care.

Fortifieds: yeah, nah, let’s not worry about this one just yet. 

Go forth and vino, mofos, and remember this: you’re sweet enough already.