Wine -that godly elixir made of transmuted grape juice- is oftentimes described as being dry, off-dry, bone-dry, semi-sweet or sweet, but why? Isn’t it kind of weird to use the adjective dry -which relates to a tactile sensation– in the same line as sweet, which is a gustatory sensation?
Turns out dryness in wine has been used since the dawn of time to describe the amount of sugar in a wine, to be more exact, the amount of residual sugar.
Wine is an heterogeneous liquid mixture of mostly water (normally up to 88% v/v), ethanol (ranging from 5.5% up to 23% v/v) and a smaller fraction that encompasses a myriad of other components (such as pigments, tannins, and aromatics) which are responsible for heightening the wine drinking experience.(1)
Table of Contents
What are the Driest Red Wines?
Here are some grape varieties that contain the least amount of sugar:
I consider the driest red wine to be made from Nebbiolo grapes. Nebbiolo is a red grape native to Italy that reigns supreme in the famous regions of Barolo and Barbaresco.
Wines made from Nebbiolo grapes will produce red wines that show a delicate hue (somewhat comparable to Pinot noir) but that are full bodied because of their high acid and strong astringency.
Among the dry reds, Nebbiolo feels sophisticated and powerful, displaying aromas of dried roses, tar and red cherries.
It pairs well with truffle-based pasta and soft cheeses, but it can be drunk easily by itself. The driest wine is a combination of total lack of sugar, a good amount of acid and high astringency.
Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the driest red wines, and at the same time one of the boldest. Cabernet Sauvignon is the quintessential grape that dominates Bordeaux blends (along with Merlot and other grapes such as Petit verdot) and that rules over Napa Valley.
It produces red wines that are bold, full bodied wines, that are naturally high in tannins and in color.
Signature aromas in Cabernet Sauvignon are black currant, black cherries, cedar and spices. Cabernet Sauvignon pairs extremely well with steaks, chicken roasts and mushroom based dishes. If you love cooking with wine, It’s a great ingredient.
Other wines that are noteworthy are made with Merlot grapes. Hailing from Bordeaux but planted all over, Merlot is extremely versatile, producing red wines that are fruity, tannin and that retain a good level of acidity.
Merlot grapes are lighter in color than Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and they will produce wines that are one of the driest red wines list. Merlot is an easy to drink wine that has distinct flavors of raspberry, bramble and hints of tomato.
Petite Sirah grapes produce a wine that can be considered a full bodied dry red. A French grape in origin, it is now grown almost exclusively in California. Most producers will ferment Petite Sirah all the way or will leave very low residual sugar behind.
The wines are very astringent due to the grape’s natural high tannin content and deeply colored. Fruit forward, with hints of violets and stone fruits it pairs well with red meat such as lamb and hard cheeses such as gouda. Please note that, although they have similar names, Petite Sirah and Syrah are two different wines. Find out about their differences here.
Good examples of dry red wines are those made with Cabernet Franc grapes from the Loire Valley in France, specifically from Chinon.
This grape variety is the parent of other extremely famous purple grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère.
Wines made with Cabernet Franc are fruit forward, medium bodied wines that can show aromas of both red and dark fruits, and rich flavors reminiscent of dark chocolate.
Cabernet Franc produces wines that are easy to pair with any type of food, ranging from hard cheeses (Manchego, Pecorino, aged Cheddar) to red meat (burgers, meatballs, grilled lamb) and even desserts made with dark chocolate.
Pinot noir is a varietal that produces thin-skinned purple grapes that form pinecone-shaped clusters, hence the name (pinot noir means black pinecone in French).
It is grown in cooler regions, such as Burgundy (France), Oregon (USA), and Tasmania (AUS). If you get a bottle of Pinot Noir from any of these regions, it will surely have no residual sugar left, yet it will have a fruit forward profile.
Pinot noir produces medium to light bodied wines that tend to have fewer tannins when compared to other red wine varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and they are generally perceived as being more delicate. Its distinctive aromas evoke black cherries, licorice, and raspberry.
Pinot noir pairs well with a myriad of foods, ranging from red meats (game, roast) to poultry (duck, turkey, roasted chicken), hard cheeses such as compté and softer ones such as chèvre. Pinot noir is widely regarded as a subtle wine with lower alcohol levels.
Dry White Wines
As for the driest white wine section, it is worth mentioning Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot grigio. This green-skinned grape is a true cosmopolitan and can produce very different styles depending on where it’s grown.
If grown in Australia, New Zealand, or Chile the wines will be crisp, with tropical fruits dominating the palate. If grown in the northern hemisphere (France), the wines will be more mineral.
In all cases, one of the main features of Sauvignon Blanc is the acidity and freshness. On the other hand, Pinot grigio (or Pinot gris in France) is a mutation of Pinot noir that produces one of the driest white wines around. It has laser-like acidity, notes of stone fruits, overall flavor of citrus and is easy to drink.
What Does the Word “Dry” Mean in the Wine Industry?
Using the word “dry” to describe a wine can be confusing, since other features such as tannins (responsible for astringency, a dry sensation in our mouths) or high alcohol content (causing a burning feeling) can elicit sensations of “dryness” in our palates.
For dry wine to be considered such, it should have no perceivable amount of residual sugar, which means that the sugar percentage should be in the realms of 1% (which equates to 10 g/L) or less.
For a wine to be labeled as bone-dry, the amount of sugar should be below 0.5 % or 5 g/L. Wines having more sugar than this are categorized as off-dry, semi-sweet or sweet, the latter referred to as dessert wine.
The alcohol content in wine is achieved through the fermentation process. Yeast consumes grape sugar and converts it into ethanol and carbon dioxide.
Some winemakers (and certain styles of winemaking practices) call for the fermentation process to be stopped before all the sugar present in the grape juice is transformed into alcohol, hence leaving behind a certain amount of sugar, referred to as residual sugar.
The big majority of wines available will either be considered as either dry or bone-dry. And while certain sweet wines can be great to drink and amazing to pair with food, the reality is that dry wines are more abundant for a number of reasons.
For instance, dry wines are more shelf stable because there’s no more residual sugar left to ferment, so they’re less likely to suffer from microorganism spoilage.
Dry wine is easier to pair with food and is therefore more versatile. Also importantly, dry wines contribute with less calories per glass, which can be an important factor when consumers want to limit their caloric intake.
Dry wines are easier to drink than sweeter wines, since sweeter wines tend to feel cloying after a couple of glasses.
But even if a dry wine does not produce a sugary sensation, certain flavor compounds may mislead the wine drinker into thinking they’re consuming wine with residual sugars. This phenomenon is referred to as crossmodal association and it can happen in rosés, white wines and red wines.
For instance, wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the Napa Valley will mostly have no residual sugars, but they will show distinct flavors of black currant.
A young Pinot noir from Burgundy will be fruit forward yet in most cases it will be considered a very dry red wine.
An old vine Zinfandel from California can come out as being jammy and having a huge amount of dark fruit yet it will be bone dry.
If you want to be absolutely certain that a wine you are drinking has a detectable amount of residual sugar or your mind is playing tricks on you, you can do the following: tilt your wine glass and dip the tip of your tongue in the wine. Your taste buds will let you know. (2)
Most wines out there can be classified as dry wine, which is great since dry wine tends to have fewer calories and is more versatile to pair with food. Dry red wine is also easier to drink than sweet wine.
However, there are a few tricks to help you make sure to avoid sweet wine that will have noticeable residual sugar: Avoid wines labeled as “dessert wines”.
These wines by definition will have high levels of sugar and will most likely be fortified wines. Fortified wines will have hefty alcohol levels, up to 20% abv. You can also avoid sparkling wines that are labeled as “doux” or “demi-sec”.
Also, avoiding a certain grape variety such as Moscato, Gewürztraminer or Riesling, since the winemaking practices traditionally related to these grapes tend to leave some residual sugar as a stylistic choice.
You can alternatively, ask for help and kindly request the working sommelier or the store clerk to point you to the driest red wine around. After all, they will know best.
Discover the truth about dry red wine as an aphrodisiac and its potential effects on arousal. Find out more by reading here.
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