Can a dry red wine have higher sugar content than a sweet wine?

Ask Dr Vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.

Dear Dr. Vinny,

Can a dry red wine have higher sugar content than a sweet wine? Does the amount of residual sugar indicate the alcohol content of a wine?

—Pat B., Huntington Beach, Calif.

Dear Pat,

Let’s start by noting that the fermentation process converts the sugar in the grapes to alcohol. It’s not unusual for at least a little bit of sugar to be left at the end of fermentation. Technically a wine is considered “dry” if there are less than 10 grams per liter left, while a “sweet” or dessert wine has more than 30 grams per liter. Stuff in between is considered “off-dry.”

Of course, most people don’t sip a wine and think, “Boy, this tastes like it has 13 or 14 grams per liter of residual sugar!” Our perception of the sugar is based on our own sensitivity to sweetness (some of us like cotton candy more than others) as well as on the interplay of the other factors in a wine: alcohol, acidity, tannins and glycerin. Two wines might have the same exact amount of residual sugar and alcohol, but one’s fruit flavors could taste more jammy and ripe (and therefore sweet) than the other’s.

Since we’ve noted that fermentation converts grape sugars to alcohol, there’s definitely a relationship between a wine’s residual or unconverted sugar and its alcohol level. The more residual sugar, the lower the potential alcohol that wine could have. But it’s not a simple relationship—there are other factors at play, particularly how much sugar the grapes had to begin with. Two wines could have widely different alcohol percentages but the same amount of residual sugar—or vice versa—depending on how ripe the grapes were.

—Dr. Vinny

How to Taste Tasting Descriptors Ripeness Levels Winemaking Techniques Explained Sweet Wines Ask Dr. Vinny

More In Dr. Vinny

Is my home wine cellar supposed to smell like wine?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains possible sources of a wine aroma in a bottle …

Nov 16, 2020

What do you call white wines that have a citrusy, fizzy sensation?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains the difference between acidity and effervescence.

Nov 13, 2020

Should I be concerned about wine freezing in my car if it’s below freezing outside?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny answers questions about freezing wine.

Nov 11, 2020

Do you recommend any wine clubs? Are they good holiday gifts for wine lovers?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny offers tips for choosing a wine club.

Nov 9, 2020

Could smoke taint in wine be removed by reverse osmosis?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains how reverse osmosis is used as a tool for …

Nov 6, 2020

Can I charge a membership fee for a winemaking club without having a license to sell wine?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny gets an assist from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade …

Nov 4, 2020