I often get the question of what constitutes a ‘sweet’ wine versus a ‘dry’ wine, and moreover, what do those labels or styles mean, from guests, family, friends, and random people. Therefore, I hope to shed light on the subject by sharing the official European Union and US system and MY interpretation and system I like to use when doing freelance wine education classes, wine tasting parties, and work at the winery . Also included is a pictorial guide for sugar levels of Champagne and other bubbles, especially as we approach the holidays and celebrations, which incorporates different wine language/terms from regular table and dessert wines.
There is no international, or even national, agreement on the meaning of terms like dry, off-dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, medium-sweet, medium-dry, and so on. In 2002, the European Union legislated some of these terms. But the definitions depend on the wines’ acidity levels. For example, a “dry” European wine cannot have any more than 0.4 percent residual sugar (RS), unless that wine has suitable acidity, in which case it can have up to 0.9 percent RS and still be considered dry. From a taste point of view, this does not make sense; but it also makes it almost impossible to figure out where one term ends and another begins. In the US and much of the New World, producers decide for themselves what terms to use and what defines those terms. The simple guideline in the US (not law) is suggested by the “Sweet and Fortified Wine Association” listed, although restrictive and not commonly used. If you use these terms, then most US Chardonnays would need to be labeled “off-dry”, not “dry”, which we all know would be misleading.
DRY – less than 0.5 % RS
OFF-DRY – 0.5 % to 1.9% RS
SEMI-SWEET – 2.0 % to 6 % RS
SWEET – more than 6 % RS
I like to use this system below in determining the style/sweetness of wine (disclaimer – not official, but helpful) and what I use in describing wines . A good sweetness test is to hold your nose while tasting wine and if you taste sweet, then it is truly sweet (has a substantial amount of RS). If it doesn’t, then most like a fruity wine, like Riesling, with some RS (thanks to our sensory receptors on tongue and in mouth).
Dry – up to 1% (dry white and red wines, like chardonnay, pinot gris, riesling, gewurztraminer, sauvignon blanc, Brut Nature and Extra Brut Champagne, all reds, except Lambrusco, ports, madeira, sherry, or late harvest reds, red port)
Off-Dry – 1% to 2% (extra-dry Champagne/sparkling, some rieslings, gewirztraminers, and muscats, Beaujolais, gamay noir)
Medium-Dry/Semi-Dry – 2% to 5% (some rieslings and gewurztraminers)
Semi-Sweet/Medium-Sweet – 5% to 12% (late harvest wines, some Valpolicella, port, madeira, some muscats and moscatos)
Sweet – more than 12% (ice wines, white port, Sauternes, Vendage Tardives, Tokaji, port, some fortified muscats, German dessert wines, late harvest, auslese, BA, TBA)
Dry means that the wine has no more natural grape sugar that could be converted into alcohol during fermentation (note – drying or astringency sensation on the palate is a result of tannin, not necessarily dry). Some RS does not make the wine taste ‘slightly sweet’. We usually cannot detect the RS. The presence of sweetness in beverages seems to be exclusively a wine problem. No one says that they do not want sweetness in Coke, which contains about 11% RS, whereas most of our dinner wines would be 0 to 2% RS.
To be considered a sweet wine, and not a dinner wine, a wine typically has lots of RS. The EU considers a labeled sweet wine to have at least 4.5% RS. Most of Europe’s excellent sweet wines, have much more than that. Take Port (one of my favorites), which generally has around 8% RS. Sauternes comes in around 10% to 15%, German trockenbeerenauslesen (TBA’s) can be 30% RS, and some Spain’s historical Pedro Ximenezes sherries have over 40% RS.
There are also many styles of wine where some sweetness is essential to the balance the wine’s high acid content. For example, Champagne, German Rieslings, and French Vouvrays (chenin blanc). For comparison, think about bitter espresso. A little sugar would not make it sweet but would counteract the sharp bitterness. Sweetness can be the goal of the wine as in dessert wines or used in small amounts to create balance in table wines.
Champagne/Sparkling Wines (pictured)