This is one of the most perplexing differences to many wine drinkers, experienced or not. They’ll confuse wine that is fruity, like sauvignon blanc or vigonier, with wine that is sweet, like riesling. In fact, there is a significant difference.
A dry wine, very simply, is a wine that isn’t sweet – nothing more complicated than that. Most of the wine sold in the U.S., save for white zinfandel, is dry, and that holds true whether it’s red or white.
So why the confusion? Because most people associate dry wine with red wine, and with the tannins in red wine. The tannins are the stuff that causes the astringent, unpleasant flavor that makes your mouth pucker. It’s one reason why so many people say they don’t like red wine, though tannins don’t have to be unpleasant and are actually a key part of well-made wine.
But tannins have very little to do with how dry the wine is. Dryness is the absence of sweetness, not the presence of tannins. A wine can be tannic and sweet, like poorly-made port. And white wines, which usually don’t have any tannins, can be just as dry as red wines.
The other area of confusion revolves around the fruit flavors in wine. We’re so accustomed to equating fruitiness with sweetness, like in jams and pies, that when we smell or taste a fruit flavor, we assume that it’s sweet -- even when it isn’t. Case in point is a typical $10 California merlot, which is just bursting with ripe, mouth-filling blueberry flavor. But it doesn’t have any measurable level of sugar, and is a bone dry wine.
How to explain the difference? Consider a glass of plain iced tea. That’s dry, since it isn’t sweet. Add lemon juice to the tea, and it becomes fruity, but dry. Now add sugar to the iced tea, and it becomes fruity and sweet tea. The principle is the same with wine.
One way to quickly tell whether a wine is sweet is the alcohol content. During the wine making process, the sugar in the grape juice is converted to alcohol. This means that the higher the alcohol, the drier the wine. Low alcohol, usually less than 12 percents, usually produces a sweeter wine.