Skip to content

Wine Descriptors That Confuse

It’s All About Sugar

The two basic wine descriptors of still wine are often improperly used and, as such, can cause much confusion. What are those two descriptors? They are dry and sweet. There is actual dryness and sweetness in wine. And there is also perceived dryness and perceived sweetness. The usage of these perceived traits as levels of actual dryness or sweetness can be confusing, so I hope that I can shed some light on the subject.  To do so, we need to start with the process of how one makes wine, and that begins with fermentation.

The process of fermentation in making wine (and beer and liquor) is when ambient or added yeast consumes the glucose/fructose (aka sugar) and creates two byproducts –  ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. The CO2 releases into the atmosphere, and the alcohol remains – thus turning grape juice into wine. If the yeast does not entirely consume the sugars in the grape juice, then the measurable amount of sugars remaining is called residual sugar. It is measured in grams per liter. And it is that remaining sugar that makes a wine dry or sweet.

Wine Descriptors

Wine Descriptors
What is Dry? And by Default, What is Sweet?

There is no regulatory definition in the US that defines what level of residual sugar (glucose/fructose) in a bottle of wine constitutes dry.  With no regulations, we can only look to places like Wine Folly, a widely resourced wine education site. According to them, these are the guidelines:

Bone-Dry wines have less than one gram of residual sugar per liter.
Dry wines have 1-17 grams of residual sugar per liter. (Many other sources claim dry wine has less than 10g/l)
Off-Dry wines have 17-35 grams of residual sugar per liter.
Medium Sweet wines have 35-120 grams of residual sugar per liter.
Sweet wines have more than 120 grams of residual sugar per liter.

According to an article I read in Decanter Magazine, “As a basic rule, wines with 10g/L or less of residual sugar are typically considered dry wines. (Most tasters cannot detect sweetness below 4 to 5 g/L.)…”

Believe it or not, tasting sweetness in wine is quite tricky because several other wine traits can distort our perception. To understand the complexity of tasting sweetness, you may want to check out my post from last year – Perceptions of Taste.

Wine Descriptors:

If not Dry, then What?

Dry is one of those wine descriptors that is often misused, and there are two reasons of which I am aware.

High Alcohol

Some will refer to a wine as dry if they detect a burning sensation from an out-of-balance high alcohol level.  This sensation can also feel as if your mouth, throat, and nasal area have dried out from the alcohol. Because this does not pertain to the amount of residual sugar, the descriptor is not “dry.” In this case, the most common term to use is “hot.” And while technically not “heat hot nor spicy hot,” the burning sensation in your mouth and nose is colloquially known as “hot.” Another term used is “burn.” 

Wine Descriptors


And then there is the physical drying of the mouth; what is that if not dry? When drinking red wine, there can be a chemical reaction in your mouth that is often confused with wine being “dry” that comes from tannins. Tannins come from 4 primary sources, grape skins, seeds, stems as well as wood barrels during aging. Tannins provide many excellent characteristics in red wine, including texture, mouthfeel, structure, and weight. But if they are out of balance with the other features in the wine, they can present very differently. Tannins may also cause the saliva in your mouth to dry up. Like someone stuck a hairdryer in your mouth and gave it a hot blast of air. Again, this physical dryness is often confused with what makes a wine “dry.” But since this does not involve the remaining residual sugar, this too would be considered incorrect.

Wine Descriptors

The physical drying of the mouth from the tannins is experienced in many ways and therefore has many descriptors. Here are a few descriptors: Harsh, if overly drying; gripping, if the tannins stick to the sides of your mouth; coarse, if they have a sandpaper feel; firm, if they persistently remain; or muscular if they are aggressively chalky. When I teach others, I often refer to this sensation as “sweaters on your teeth” because folks immediately relate to that sensation.

Wine Descriptors:
If not Sweet, then What?

There are four different reasons that one may perceive “sweet” in a bone-dry and dry wine. These reasons come from your personal olfactory and gustatory memories, resulting in how you perceive the flavors derived from the oak, fruit, acidity, and alcohol level. While it is more than likely that your detection of perceived sweetness comes from some combination of these four categories, I suspect that it is the fruit that plays a significant role for many. Therefore, rather than using the term “sweet” to describe the fruitiness, try using words such as jammy, concentrated, juicy, ripe, grapey, etc. Or even more so, just fruity.Wine Descriptors

Again, there is a lot to say about what we smell and taste in wine, and I highly encourage you to read or re-reread the post I mentioned above – The Perceptions of Taste.

That is all we have got for you this week.


Rick & Gary


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.