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Wine Professor Presents: Wine For Beginners


For newcomers to the fascinating world of wine, differentiating between “sweet,” “semi-sweet, “semi-dry,” and “dry” can often boggle the mind! However, these simple classifications help us understand exactly how sweet the wine will be on the palate (the tongue). Wine sweetness doesn’t rely only on the amount of sugar – it’s calculated by alcohol level, tannins (that make wine bitter), and acidity too.

Winemakers have a few options to choose from when it comes to sweetening their wine. They can:

  • Add basic household sugar.
  • Halt the fermentation process, which prevents the yeast from eliminating the glucose and fructose. This method will also prevent the wine’s “fruitiness” from disappearing.
  • Incorporate a concentrated grape juice which will heighten the taste of fruit. This method is also much simpler then halting the fermentation.

Because not all sugars have the ability to ferment, residual sugar is the end product within the bottle of wine, which will also have an effect on how sweet the wine is. The acidity and tannins will have a counter effect on the wine’s sweetness. Additionally, unfiltered wines will contain more protein particles from the grape skins; this will occasionally bring a bit of harshness to the palate.

There are quite a few ways to evaluate and measure how sweet a wine is. The most common method is for wine producers to suspend a hydrometer into the wine where it will differentiate between the floating points of water and the wine. These measuring devices are specified to acknowledge 12.5% alcohol and consider its lightness in relation to water and the overwhelming density of sugar.

Those new to wine often prefer sweet wine. This is because sweet wines emphasize fruit flavors and have higher sugar levels, with residual sugar levels starting at approximately 5%. Semi-sweet or relatively sweet wines feature a moderate amount of sweetness on the palate. Expect the residual sugar levels to vary from approximately 1.5-4.9%. Semi-dry red and white wines are sometimes called “off-dry” or “medium-dry” and will usually feature a residual sugar level of 0.5-1.49%. Semi-dry wines have a spark of sweetness and more fruitiness than your typical bottle of dry wine.

When experiencing a dry red wine, you’ll notice the absence of sweetness; this is because a majority of the sugars have been fermented and a little more acid was added. This “dry” categorization is not without meaning as after drinking a dry red wine, you just might feel a bit of dryness in your mouth. Some well known dry reds include Burgundy, Zinfandel, Merlot, Bordeaux, and the ever popular Cabernet Sauvignon.

Your typical dry white wine may feature the aromatics of fruit and sweetness, but on the palate, there isn’t much of that. This can be attributed to the level of acidity and is not particularly influenced by sugar. Some of the most popular dry whites include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay.

Red or white dry wines usually have 0.5% or less residual sugar. It’s extremely uncommon for wine to have less than 0.1% residual sugar, due to the sweetness that comes in tandem with the grapes that are used to produce the wine.

So there you have it! Now that you understand the differences between “dry,” “semi-sweet,” and “sweet” wines, you’re no longer a wine novice! Go out and discover all types of wine – you’ll never know which one you’ll fall in love with. And that, my friend, is the beauty of the wine experience!


Wine for Beginners was written by Cheynne Chong. Stay tuned to learn more about wine from the Wine Professor.