Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What Does Dry, Semi-Dry and Semi-Sweet Tell Me About a Wine?

I am out of commission for one more week, due to hand surgery, but here's a post from last year that explains those confusing wine terms - dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, and sweet.

If you're new to wine, the 'dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, or sweet' question can be confusing. Wines are classified as dry, semi-dry, medium or sweet in order to give you an idea of how sweet the wine will taste.  Just remember that sugar is not the only factor that affects the taste of sweetness in a wine.   It can also be influenced by the level of alcohol, acidity, and amount of tannins in the wine.

There are numerous types of sugars found in all grapes starting with simple sugar.  There is also fructose and glucose that help aid in fermentation, and trace amounts of other sugars that are not fermentable. These are the sugars that guarantee that no wine is “bone dry.”

When it comes to sweetening, a wine a winemaker has three methods to choose from:  1) Adding sugar to it––usually sucrose or common table sugar.  2) Stopping the fermentation process before the yeast has consumed all the fructose and glucose.  This will help retain more of the “fruit” in the wine.  3) Adding a concentrated grape juice back to the wine after fermentation, raising the fruit taste but simpler than stopping the ferment early. 

The actual combined content of all these remaining sugars in a wine is called residual sugar. Home winemaking kits use a standard urine sugar test kit for diabetics to measure this. (Not kidding!)  And there will always be some residual sugar because not all sugars produced during the growth of the grape are fermentable.

Other components will also affect the wine's mouth-feel and taste of sweetness as well.  Acidity helps to counter sweetness, and tannins (which occur naturally in grape skins, seeds and stems,) create a more bitter taste, making the wine less sweet.  Unfiltered wines will have more protein particles from the grape skins and grape connective tissue, adding a not always unpleasant harshness when in balance. 

There are many ways to measure a wine’s sweetness.  Winemakers generally use a simple device called a hydrometer that is floated in the wine and measures the difference between the floating point of the wine and the standard floating point of pure water.  These devices are standardized to 12.5% alcohol solutions and take into account the fact that alcohol is lighter than water and sugar is heavier.  The gradient used is called specific gravity.  

A sweet wine is just that – sweet!  This is usually the type of wine beginners like.  With a high sugar content, a sweet wine will have fruity, intense flavors.  The residual sugar is 5.0% or higher for a sweet wine.

A semi sweet or medium sweet wine has some sweetness in the taste and aroma.  The residual sugar for a medium wine ranges from 1.5 to 4.9%.

A semi dry wine is also called off dry or medium dry.  A semi dry red or white wine has a level of 0.5 to 1.49% residual sugar.  A semi dry wine has a hint of sweetness and more of a ‘fruity’ taste than a dry wine.

A dry red wine will not have the taste of sweetness, due to the sugars being fermented into alcohol, and the tannins and acidity in the wine.  In fact, a dry red may leave the feeling of dryness on your tongue and a bit of a puckering sensation in your mouth.  Red wines are described as being tannic, just like tea.  Dry reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Bordeaux and Burgundy.

A dry white may have the aroma of sweetness and full fruity flavors, but no real sweetness in the wine itself. This is due to the acidity of the grapes or fruit, and not caused by sugar.  White wines are described as being astringent.  Dry white wines include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.

A dry wine (red or white) should have less than 0.5% residual sugar.  As mentioned, it is rare to find a wine that has a residual sugar level of less than 0.1% due to the natural sweetness in the grapes or fruits used to make the wine.

Hopefully, the next time you're asked the dreaded 'dry, sweet, off dry, semi sweet' question, you'll know the answer.  Now pour yourself a glass of wine (your choice on the sweetness level ; ) and celebrate the fact that wine can be as scientific, educational, and as approachable as you want.  The choice is yours just remember to –


(Special thanks to my husband, Brian Neighbors, a professional winemaker for 20 years, and his explanations on sugars, residual sugar, and how the process works!)


  1. I really enjoyed this informational wine blog. I do know the tongue knows dry from sweet and you are right the nose can smell fruity bouquet (cordial) but the tongue can detect dry . The back of the palate knows structure such as (taste) which has the most sensation to astringency. Thanks you help me better explain this concept as I learn more as a novice wine taster.

  2. Glad it was helpful. Thanks for reading!

  3. Thank you very much :) Educational and helpful, greetings from Estonia!