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A common refrain from readers: “I really enjoy sweet wines, but not too sweet.”

It’s a statement I value because many wine drinkers enjoy wines with some detection of sweetness. Knowing what makes some wines sweeter than others and the levels of sweetness help in understanding why we enjoy some wines over others.

A wine’s sweetness is measured in terms of residual sugar. It’s the level of natural grape sugar left after fermentation. Once the grapes are crushed they feed on the grapes’ sugars to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. There is usually a small amount of sugar left in the fermentation process in all wines, regardless of yeast or varietal. The industry considers those having less than 2 grams of sugar per liter dry. (There are other methods of production to achieve sweet wines such as port, sauternes, ice wine.)

Many people confuse “dry” and “sweet” when trying to explain the characteristics. The most common misconception for a dry wine is that it will “dry” out your mouth when tasting. This sensation has nothing to do with sweetness. When wines create the dry sensation in the mouth, it is usually a detection of tannin levels and not caused by being dry. Dry refers to wines that are not sweet. Sweet wines are a little easier in descriptions; the wine will generally have a taste of sweetness on the tip of your tongue.

Technical sheets from your favorite wineries, often available online, will generally list the sugar levels in a wine. But in my years of tasting wines I have found there are many variables in your perceived tasting if a wine is sweet or dry. The most important to me is the acidity — the Granny Smith apple reaction you have on your palate. If the wine has high acidity it can still have a high sugar content, but you don’t notice the sugar and sweetness.

My best advice: When you find a wine with the sweetness level you enjoy, give the name and brand to your liquor retailer. He or she can guide you on similar sweetness levels in other wines.


  • 2016 Clean Slate Riesling, Germany (about $12 retail)


  • 2013 Bockstein Riesling, Germany (about $32 retail)