What the F*** is the difference between dry, off-dry, and sweet wines?

We love answering questions for the folks on Quora who are curious about wine. You can never ask a stupid question, but somebody came close. They asked what the opposite of a dry wine would be, would it be a wet wine? Can wine be considered wet? If you are a complete novice to wine this question makes perfect sense! But the answer is, the opposite of a dry wine is a sweet wine. So what are the differences between dry and sweet wines? Thats a great question!

What is a dry wine?

A dry wine is simply a wine that has no residual sugar left after the fermentation process (where the yeast eats the sugar and leaves behind alcohol). This means that the wine is not at all sweet to taste. Some examples of dry red wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, and Malbec. In fact a lot of red wines are made in a dry style, probably most of the wines you drink. Examples of dry white wines include Gruner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris. 

What is semi-sweet, or off-dry?

Semi sweet and off dry are one and the same thing. The two terms refer to a wine that has some residual sugar after fermentation, and has some sweetness to it without tasting too sweet. This is also where we start to see style come into play, especially with white wines. Some white wines can often be made in off-dry styles after being harvested a little bit later in the season, like Riesling. 

The opposite of dry is a sweet wine

On the opposite side of the scale from dry wines are sweet wines. These wines have a ton of residual sugar left. Often these wines are made later in the harvest when the grapes are just starting to rot. The grapes themselves will be super sweet, with a a much higher concentration of sugar in them as they begin to decay. This is when flavors like honey start to become more present in the wines. There are also flavors like tropical fruits, jams, and candied fruits. You also get flavors of dried fruits like dates and raisins which makes a lot of sense if you think about it. 

Sweet wines can be found in red and white and most are considered to be fantastic desert wines like late harvest Rieslings, Tokaj, and Port.

Misconceptions about dry and sweet wines

The most common misconception of a dry wine is that it makes your mouth feel dry. This is far from true. That dry feeling in your mouth is actually caused by tannins, and those can be present in many dry and off-dry wines.

We also tend to think that dry white wines cannot have fruit flavors. While a lot of fruit flavors in wine have some correlation to residual sugar, that is not always the case. A lot of dry wines can have tart fruit flavors, bitter citrus flavors, or even some unripened fruit flavors. 

Our minds can be tricked by aromas and acidity. Often our tastebuds are primed to taste something one way if we pick up scents associated with it. This is often the case with aromatic white wines that have a powerful bouquet. Acidity can also play a trick with how much sweetness we perceive in a wine by messing with the sour flavors that we pick up. Think somewhere along the lines of drinking a lemonade from s stand in the summer, they throw in a ton of sugar but it still tastes bitter and incredibly refreshing.

At the end of the day you have to trust yourself and drink what you love. We all have different perceptions with the level of sweetness. You may find that even off-dry wines are too sweet for you, or that dry wines are just too dry to enjoy. Trust your tastebuds!