Winespeak: The opposite of sweet is dry

It’s pretty easy to call a wine sweet: it has a perceptible level of residual sugar in it (five grams of residual sugar is often considered the threshold of perception). Sweet wines generally start at about 45 grams of residual sugar (RS). Some wines, such as Tokay, have require a minimum level 60 grams of RS and rate wines by sweetness with six puttonyos being instant diabetes.

What’s the opposite of sweet? Dry. All the discernible sugar has been converted to alcohol during the fermentation process. Tricky since you might think the opposite of dry is wet and, well, all wine is wet. Dry doesn’t have to do with high tannins, which might make you go “chomp, chomp” and think “OMG, my mouth is drying out! I need water!” It’s just close to zero grams of residual sugar.

And there’s a middle ground of “off-dry,” or slightly sweet. Silly term, I agree (what is it, moist?). Slightly sweeter than that can be called medium dry. If you want to get all wonky geeky, off-dry might be five to fifteen grams of RS and medium dry, from fifteen to forty. Some countries and/or regions are so wonky geeky that they have specific terms and laws for these levels.

Oddly enough, a wine with a lower amount of residual sugar can sometimes taste sweeter than one with a slightly higher amount; it’s often a question of balance with acidity and one category that can be hard to discern in this regard is Champagne, which also as carbon dioxide zooming at your palate as well.

I bring this up because it came up in the comments of this recent posting about “light” as a wine style. And it comes up regularly in my NYU class. If you want to see sweet and dry in action, try tasting these two Leitz wines or a Northern Rhone syrah against a ripe, sweet version of the same grape from somewhere in the New World (but not all are ripe and sweet).

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12 Responses to “Winespeak: The opposite of sweet is dry”

  1. As I mentioned elsewhere, the “sweet vs. fruity” thing always stymies our newbies. It’s tricky, because here we are, telling them that this wine tastes like melon, and pear, and even honey — the three sweetest things ever — yet the wine is allegedly dry?!

    This distinction is one of the most difficult for beginners to get ahold of — and even once they understand the concept, it’s still difficult in practice to distinguish fruity and sweet from just fruity.

  2. About Tokaji: the correct minima are 60 grams/l for 3 puttonyos aszu, 90 for 4-puttonyos, 120 for 5-puttonyos and 150 for 6-puttonyos. 250 g/l would belong to the rare aszu eszencia category, above which there is one more, even more rare natur eszencia, starting at, I believe, 450 grams …

  3. True enough, Andrzej! Corrected above. I’ve had an eszencia or two and, while no doubt sweet enough to attract hummingbirds from miles around, it can be delicious.

  4. And if you are done with your eszencia, rinse your glass with some dry furmint to get another glass of some delicious and still pretty sweet stuff 🙂

  5. Wow, did I read that correctly? A wine with 450 grams of residual sugar, when 60 was just touted as being fairly sweet. Does pouring this wine also require a honey comb?

    The post was educational and to the point, thanks for the quick lesson on RS.

  6. Dylan, the most concentrated eszencia (free-run juice from botrytized grapes) ever made at Tokaji Disznoko had, if I remember correctly, 917 grams of RS per litre, and it does not really matter if it was before or after fermentation, which in this case takes a few years and ends at 2% of alcohol …

  7. actually, there are a lot more classifications for sweetness than that. but i’m guessing you’re just playing coy with us. ; )

    but if you want a very good comparison from the same region, get vouvray and taste the gamut from sec to moelleux, and even petillant. and further frustrate your class with trying to identify them as many are not labelled with a sweetness indicator! oh, and follow it up with a mushroomy savennieres from down the road just to really knock ’em out. heh.

  8. Heard you last night on Blogstein. Funny show!

  9. I think all the classification and naming for various levels of sweetness is kinda silly (except for winemakers). For drinkers, the most important thing is balance. And I’m not just talking Champagne and dosage. An Auslese with a fair amount of residual sugar but intense fresh acidity and minerality tastes vibrant, balanced and great with food. However, an over-ripe, but technically dry, Cali Cab with low acid and gobs of sweet fruit can taste downright cloying and not very food friendly.

    I think we should focus more on comparing wine styles and what their use is at table (or not at table) rather than specific categories of sweetness based on absolute values of residual sugar. A good Sauternes can be a dessert wine, but it can also be a wonderful companion to a foie gras dish early in a dinner. That tells you a lot more about the wine than simply saying “its a sweet wine”.

    Just my $.02!

    Great blog! Cheers!

  10. I first understood “dry” upon tasting dry rieslings. They leave a tonic-water aftertaste which I find quite unpleasant. It also seems to me that many people — newbies, perhaps? — have no patience to wait for the acidic balance or dry finish that often accompanies a “sweet” wine. A hit of sugar on the tongue from a riesling or a vouvray immediately brings the reaction, “wine shouldn’t taste like pop.”

  11. Isn´t it apparent that acidity is underrated here ?? No wine and specially white wines can do without acidity. The higher the acidity the more “dry” the wine will appear on the palate !! German wine law takes this into consideration – Dry German Wines may have up to 9 gramms RS with an acidity of also 9 gramms !! Once you have tasted a number of these – you will have to interprete “dryness” anew. Nancy is correct,even when I cannot follow when she talks of Tonic Water or Pop !!

  12. […] this description of “dry” and “Residual Sugar” included in this article ( and find that it’s helpful to note that a wine that’s considered “dry” can […]


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