Ranking wines by driest white wine to sweetest is a great way to begin describing a wine. In most cases, the first thing we say about a white wine is whether it is sweet or dry as a baseline to describe the wine. Or you’ll hear, “I like dry white wines,” or “I like white wines that aren’t too sweet,” but what does that mean exactly? I’ve dissected 14 popular white wine grapes based on how dry or sweet they are. Would you be surprised to know that some are both? Read on to learn everything you need to know about the driest white wines.
- What makes a white wine dry?
- What is residual sugar?
- White Wine by Dryness Chart
- Varying Degrees of dryness and sweetness in white wine grapes
- Driest white wine to sweetest
- White wines by dryness by each white grape variety
- Difference between sweet wines and fruity wines
- Difference between a dry wine and wine that dries out our mouths
- How to tell if a wine is dry or sweet just by looking at the label
What makes a white wine dry?
When we talk about wines, the word dry is used to describe wines that lack sweetness; dry is the opposite of sweet. Dryness in white wines, and all wines, is determined by how little or how much sugar is in the wine. White wine grapes are naturally sweet at harvest when the grapes are ripe. The sugar in grapes is what converts to alcohol during the fermentation process. At the end of fermentation, there is what is called residual sugar. The driest white wine will have very little residual sugar.
What is residual sugar?
As its name suggest, residual sugar is natural sugar that is leftover when fermentation has ended. The amount of residual sugar will determine how dry or sweet a wine is. A wine with little or no residual sugar is a dry white wine. A wine with some to ample residual sugar will be sweet. All wines have some residual sugar. Dry wines have less than 1 gram per glass (150ml/5 ounces). Sweet wines can have as many as 20 grams of sugar per glass. Our palate begins to perceive sweetness at about 5 or 6 grams of sugar per glass. The driest white wine will have the least amount of residual sugar.
White Wine by Dryness Chart
Varying Degrees of Dryness and Sweetness in White Wine Grapes
The key to understand the White Wine Dryness Chart is to understand that a major contributing factor is the style the winemaker is after. There are many dry white wine types. Any white wine grape can make a dry or sweet wine; just some are better as sweet wines than others. Sweet wines need to be balanced by acidity which is why wines with high acidity are often chosen for dessert wines.
The winemaker decides whether a wine is dry or sweet. It’s her choice to stop fermentation before all the sugar is converted to alcohol resulting in a sweeter wine, or allowing fermentation to continue until all the sugar is gone resulting in a dry wine. There are also different ways to make very sweet dessert wines.
List of White Wines by Dryness
What is the driest white wine?
- Assyrtiko is one of the driest white wine you can find. Assyrtiko comes from Greece, mainly from the island of Santorini. It has searing acidity and an interesting saline quality. Assyrtiko is also used to make Vin Santo, a very sweet dessert wine which it is why it appears on both sides of the White Wine Dryness Chart.
- Melon, or Melon de Bourgogne, is the grape that makes the very dry white wines of Muscadet in the Loire Valley. It is often considered the driest white wine.
- Sauvignon Blanc
- A very popular white wine, Sauvignon Blanc is almost always dry although some off-dry styles are out there. French Sauvignon Blanc will be the driest whereas Sauvignon Blanc from the New World (California/New Zealand) will be less dry.
- Gruner Veltliner
- A very dry and spicy white wine from Austria, Gruner Veltliner is a safe bet when looking for a dry white wine.
- Chenin Blanc
- Chenin Blanc comes in many different styles that vary from very dry to quite sweet. Most Chenin Blanc from South Africa is dry, whereas Chenin Blanc from Vouvray is demi-sec or medium-sweet.
- Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio
- Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the same grape variety; in French its called Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio in Italian. Most Pinot Grigio will be dry. Some Pinot Gris in Alsace or Oregon may have an element of sweetness.
- Semillon makes mostly dry white wine in Bordeaux where its blended with Sauvignon Blanc. However, it also makes the very sweet dessert wine Sauternes.
- A very light and refreshing white wine grape from Spain and Portugal (Alvarinho in Portuguese). Albarino varies between dry to off-dry.
- Chardonnay is truly a chameleon and will adjust to any environment. When we think of Chardonnay it’s mostly oaky, buttery Chardonnay from California or dry mineral driven Chablis. Chardonnay is mostly dry but can be perceived as off-dry in some cases, particularly in Australia.
- Viognier has such ripe fruit flavors, it’s surprising it’s not a very sweet wine (more on fruitiness next). In most cases, Viognier teeters between dry to off-dry.
- A delightfully aromatic white wine grape from Argentina, Torrontes can range from very dry to off-dry.
- The million dollar question: Is Riesling dry or sweet? Well, it’s both, but not at the same time. You can find very sweet Rieslings from Germany, very dry Rieslings from Alsace, off-dry Riesling from Washington State, and everything in between. Take another look at Riesling here.
- Most of the Gewurztraminer I’ve had has been off-dry though drier version are out there. It’s a very aromatic wine that smells like roses, lychee, and Turkish delights.
- Moscato or Muscat
- Moscato and Muscat are synonymous. Muscat is one of the oldest grapes in the world. There are hundreds of versions of this grape and hundreds of variations in sweetness. There is plenty of dry Muscat throughout Europe but Moscato is more famous for it’s sweet and dessert styles.
Difference Between Sweet Wines and Fruity Wines
This is where it starts to feel like our mouths and noses are playing tricks on us. Determining a white wine’s dryness can be a bit challenging if the wine is fruity. A huge percentage of the descriptions about white wines are fruits, sweet fruits at that. We describe white wine like smelling and tasting like apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, and plenty of other sweet things YET we determine that the wine is dry. Distinguishing between fruitiness is sweetness is quite difficult but you must remember that sweetness is residual sugar and not fruitiness or juiciness.
I run a wine tour company and I teach people how to properly taste wine. This is by far the hardest thing to convince our brains; that what we’re tasting is dry even though it reminds us of a lot of things that are sweet. The sugar in the grapes has been converted to alcohol but the flavor of those sweet things remains.
Difference Between a Dry Wine and Wine that Dries Out Our Mouths
Wines that are dry lack sweetness. Wines that dry out our mouths have tannins. Tannins act like an astringent and suck the saliva out of our cheeks. The wine jargon is very confusing because in reality dry is the opposite of wet, not the opposite of sweet. Most white wines do not have tannins, so it’s safe to assume the wine is dry and not drying.
Useful Tip: How to tell if a wine is dry or sweet just by looking at the label
Finally, the best way to determine how dry a white wine is, take a look at the label. White wine dryness is in direct correlation with alcohol level. Wines with lower alcohol tend to be sweeter. So when you’re out shopping for wine, flip the wine bottle over and find the ABV. Wines that are under 10% alcohol will likely be sweet. From 10-12%ABV, the wines will be off-dry, and over 12% they should be quite dry. Based on what you’ve learned above, you know that there is less residual sugar when there is more alcohol. Wine brands are pretty good about letting you know if the wine is sweet or dry on their labeling, but alcohol content is an extra tip if you’re debating between two different wines and are looking for the dryer one.
Need help shopping for dry white wine? This cheat sheet will tell you all the dry white wine types.
Frequently Asked Questions about Dry and Sweet Wines
What is the most dry white wine?
The driest white wines are Muscadet, Assyrtiko, and Sauvignon Blanc. These wines are almost always fermented to bone dry white wines.
Which white wines are considered dry?
Generally speaking, dry white wines include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc, and Gruner Veltliner.
Is Pinot Grigio drier than Chardonnay?
While Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay may have similar degrees of residual sugar, Pinot Grigio will feel less sweet and more dry on the palate.
Which white wine is the sweetest?
Before entering into dessert wine territory, Moscato is generally the sweetest wine.
What glass to use for dry white wine?
Most dry white wines need a basic universal wine glass. You’ll want a stemmed glass vs a stemless glass since white wine needs to be served chilled. The warmth from our hands will warm up white wine in a stemless glass.