Dry vs. Sweet Wine: Why Knowing the Difference Is Good for Your Health

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Another study confirms that red wine can be good for your health — if it's dry and consumed in moderation. But before you go reaching for a bottle of red, do you know the difference between dry and sweet? That can be confusing, particularly when a wine is fruity.

People tend to reach for a bottle when a study suggests drinking wine is good, like the one about those with type 2 diabetes who drank one (and only one) glass of dry red wine with dinner based on a Mediterranean diet. (See the Time piece that highlights the benefits, like a higher good HDL cholesterol level, a significant drop in components of metabolic syndrome, and better sleep.) The question is: Which bottle should you be reaching for if you don't understand the difference between dry and sweet red wine?

The Difference Between Dry and Sweet Wine

It's important to realize that before the juice from grapes becomes wine, it contains natural sugar from the fruit grown on the vine. Without the sugar, the juice couldn't become wine because it's the sugar that turns into alcohol during the fermentation process. A wine is considered sweet when it contains a certain amount of residual sugar, or sugar that's left over after fermentation.

It's the amount sugar left in a wine that qualifies it as a sweet, but there doesn't seem to be a hard and fast line that distinguishes dry from sweet. Wine Folly suggests that a wine with less than 10 grams of residual sugar is considered dry and anything over 35 grams of sugar is considered sweet. That area in between, from 11g to 34g, is what's called off-dry.

Some wines that fall below the 10g of residual sugar line can taste sweet, though, and it's often because of their fruitiness.

Fruity Doesn't Equal Sweet

Have you ever heard someone describe a wine as "fruit forward"? Basically that means a fruit flavor other than grape is dominant when you first taste the wine. It could be the black cherry flavor that you'll often taste in a merlot or the taste of blackberry in a zinfandel. Neither of those wines contain any fruit other than grapes, yet other fruit flavors come through, and the wines can be described as fruity. Most bottles of merlot and zinfandel are dry because they contain little residual sugar. Other descriptors that are used for wines that can be confused with sweet are "jammy" or "juicy."

Examples of Dry Red Wines

The researchers saw the most benefit when dry red wine was paired with a Mediterranean-style dinner. That's good news because dry red wines are very food-friendly. The reds you would usually choose to drink with a meal are the ones the study says should be consumed for the benefits. I'm sure there was a beautiful moment when the wine gods made this so, but I'm not privy to that secret. I'm familiar with dry red wines, though, so I can point you to some easy-to-find dry reds that I enjoy.

  • Cabernet sauvignon: Try Noble Vines 337.
  • Merlot: Try Bonterra Merlot.
  • Malbec: Try Eagles Rock Malbec.
  • Carmenere: Try Natura Camenere.
  • Grenache/Garnacha: Try Garnacha de Fuego.
  • Zinfandel: Try Bonterra Zinfandel.
  • Sangiovese: Try Avignonesi Vino Nobile.

Other dry reds include syrah, petite sirah, tempranillo and pinot noir.

If you still need some guidance when you walk into a wine store, just ask. There are no stupid questions when it comes to wine, and those who work in a wine store are happy to help you pick out the right wine.

Do you have a favorite dry red wine to add to the list?

View Article Sources
  1. Gepner, Yftach, et al. “Effects of Initiating Moderate Alcohol Intake on Cardiometabolic Risk in Adults With Type 2 Diabetes: A 2-Year Randomized, Controlled Trial.” Annals of Internal Medicine, vol. 163, no. 8, Oct. 2015, p. 569., doi:10.7326/M14-1650