Sweet Red Wines vs Dry Red Wines

How Are They Different?


This section provides an easy overview to help you understand the difference between sweet red wines and dry red wines. It also provides a quick overview of the four techniques used in making sweets.

There is some confusion surrounding the definitions of sweet, dry and also fruity reds. Sweet and dry wines are on the opposite end of the same spectrum.

These terms refer to the amount of residual sugar. Sweet ones contain more residual sugar. This happens during the winemaking process when only some of the sugar is converted into alcohol.

On the opposite end, when all of the sugar is converted into alcohol then that wine is dry. Wines with around 5 to 30% residual sugar are sweet. If it's in the 3 to 5% range, it's a medium or semi sweet. Dry ones have residual sugar of only 1 to 2%.

So, if a wine is sweet, it can't be dry. If it is dry, it can't be sweet.

Some people confuse the fruity taste with sweetness. However, this is just the intensity of the fruit since a fruity red wine can be either sweet or dry.

4 Techniques Used to Make These

Sweet red wines are very challenging to produce. It's hard to balance the residual sugars just right to make it perfect. These techniques are also risky since the grapes can be ruined during the process. Here are the four most common techniques:

  1. Ice Wine: This is a process of letting the grapes freeze while still on the vine. Canada is well known for theirs. See the section What are Ice Wines? for more information.
  2. sweet red wines
  3. Late Harvest: These are created leaving the grapes on the vine as late in the season as possible. The sugar content of late harvest grapes is very high.

  4. 'Raisining' The Wine: This is a process of drying out the grapes while still on the vine or after picking, essentially turning them into raisins before the winemaking process.

  5. Noble Rot: Grapes that are attacked by noble rot have a high concentration of sugar. Noble rot evaporates the water out of the grapes, leaving a high amount of sugar still in the grape.

Where to Buy These

Winemakers are not required to add the sweetness of a wine onto the label. However, you are usually able to pick out the sweeter red based on a few keys terms used on the label.

It may be called an ice or a late harvest wine. It might also show the residual sugar on the back, which is a call out that it's closer to the sweet side of the spectrum than a dry wine. In the description on the back, it may also call out that it's a sweeter wine and/or call out details of one of the sweet winemaking techniques.

Is There a Difference Between Sweet & Dessert Wine?

People typically interchange the definition of a sweet and a dessert wine. However, there is a difference between the two.

The classification of dessert wines is usually used to refer to Port, sweetened Sherries and late harvest wines.

Most of these have higher alcohol content and some sweetness. The official regulation in the US is that a dessert wine is any one that is between 14 and 24% alcohol. This means that more and more drier wines are falling into the technical definition of a dessert wine.

Sparkling Reds

Sparkling reds are sometimes called blanc de noirs. This means made from black grapes, which is what the red or purple grapes were originally called.

Sparkling and champagne are anywhere on the spectrum from sweet to extra dry. This again is based on the residual sugar.

Terms for the Levels of Sweetness

There is a common set of terms that indicate the sweetness of certain wines. Dry ones usually don't have a term added, but you'll find some of these terms on Sparkling wines and even whites.

Here is the terminology used to describe the amount of residual sugar, usually for sparkling and champagne:

Name on Label
Sweetness Level
Dolce/Sweet/Dulce Sweetest types of sparkling wine that include the largest amount of residual sugar
Medium Dry/Demi-Sec Second sweetest on the range, less residual sugar than that sweetest dolce/dulce wines
Dry/Sec/Secco Next on the range, still some sweetness in these wines but less residual sugar
Extra Dry/Extra Secco This is the middle range, which is a balance between sweet and dry
Brut/Bruto Less sweetness, less residual sugar
Extra Brut/Extra Bruto Very little sweetness or residual sugar
Brut Nature/Bruto Natural This is the driest sparkling wine on the market with little to no residual sugar

> > How Do They Differ From Dry

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