Written by: Tim Edison

Updated: January 9, 2023

What is Sweet Wine? This Chart Explains it All

What Is Sweet Wine

While there are several different styles of wine available to consumers around the globe, one style that is among the most well-known is sweet wine.

In this article, we delve into the definition of what a sweet wine really is, and explore some of the most famous sweet wines around the globe.  

We'll also go into detail to explain what the various sugar levels in different styles of wine are, from dry to sweet.

What is Sweet Wine? - A General Definition

Is there a general definition that is accepted as an industry standard regarding sweet wines?

Well, yes there is actually.

A wine technically becomes a sweet wine if it contains more than 35 grams per liter of residual sugar. 

Thirty five grams of residual sugar per liter?

How does this amount of sugar per liter compare to a wine that is considered a “dry” wine?

A “dry” wine is considered dry if it contains less than 10 grams of residual sugar per liter. 

Thus, a sweet wine, by definition, can sometimes contain at least three times the amount of sugar of a dry wine.

If a wine has between 10 and 35 grams of residual sugar in it, it will be classified as an “off-dry” wine.  This is the classification that most wines will fall into.

For those readers who are not familiar with the entire wine making process, they may be curious as to where the residual sugar actually comes from.

This sugar actually comes from the grapes themselves.  

As grapes age and ripen on the vine, the amount of sugar they naturally contain increases, so, as a general rule, the riper the grape, the more sugar it will contain. 

This concept is fairly straight forward and is easy to understand. As the wine making process begins, this sugar is converted into alcohol during the fermentation process, when yeast is added to the process.  

At the conclusion of the fermentation process, there is usually at least some trace amounts of sugar left, and sweet wines are made in a special way, in order to ensure that extra sugar is left behind.

Now that we know what the technical definition of a sweet wine is, what is a general definition for someone who is not a wine expert?

Generally, sweet wines refer to so called “dessert wines” that are made in a deliberately extra-sweet style.

Think of some of the popular wines found in local supermarkets, the ones that contain extra residual sugar that adds a richer texture and masks the impurities of an inexpensive wine.

Let’s take a brief tour through the many types of sweet wines, by exploring some of the various styles that are available on the market. 

Recommended: Learn how to sweeten wine in our in-depth guide.

Rosé Sweet Wines

The first classification we will explore is called the pink or rose sweet wines. Among this style of wine are the Pink Moscatos and White Zinfandels. 

  • Pink Moscato is a sweet desert wine that is actually a White Moscato with red grapes added in to give it a slightly different flavor and color. It generally contains fruity notes of peach and apricot, and to a lesser extent, berries, pomegranates and cherries. Pink Moscato is an excellent wine to pair with fruity desserts or lighter dinners. Perhaps one of the most popular and readily available sweet wines is White Zinfandel, which actually is a pink wine. 
  • White Zinfandel tastes much sweeter than other pink wines, as it lacks any dryness that may be present in the other pink wines. This wine is full of fruity melon notes, and is often considered one of the most refreshing sweet wines. 

Red Sweet Wines

Wine infographics with food pairing, bottle and glass type, wine types and colours.

Sweet red wines are another classification of sweet wines that vary a little from the Moscatos and Zinfandels.

There are several popular varieties including the Black Muscat, which is actually a blend of red wine and Moscato. 

  • Black Muscat, while not nearly as sweet as a pink wine, still pairs really well with desserts, particularly those containing chocolate. 
  • A harder to find sweet red wine is Schiava, which originates in Northern Italy.  This sweet red contains notes of cinnamon, cotton candy and cherries.
  • Another sweet red wine recently gaining in popularity is the Lambrusco, which also originates in Italy. This wine is actually made from ten different varieties of grapes and contains hints of cherries, blackberries, and raspberries. 
  • To close out the sweet red wines, we touch on the Brachetto d’Acqui, which may be lesser known, but is a fabulous wine to enjoy when one is in the mood for a sparkling dessert wine. The Brachetto d’Acqui contains notes of raspberries and strawberries, and is rather bubbly.

White Sweet Wines

White wines are traditionally considered to be the sweetest of the wine styles.

Not all white wines are sweet, but as a whole, there are many more sweet white wines than there are sweet red wines.

One of the most popular of the sweet white wines available is the Moscato, which is light and bubbly, and contains hints of pineapple, pears, and oranges. 

  • Moscato is a very low alcohol wine, as most of the sugar present in the grapes actually never makes it through the fermentation process as the fermentation process is halted prematurely.  
  • Another sweet white wine, this one similar to the Moscato, is the Gewurztraminer, which contains flavors and hints of peach, pear, grapefruit and ginger.
  • Moving on, we come to the White Riesling, which is made from grapes grown in the Rhine region of Germany.  This sweet white wine displays hints of apples, pears and peaches, and can easily be paired with a number of spicy cuisines. 
  • A lesser known sweet white wine is the Sauternes. Sauternes is a sweet white wine from the Bordeaux region in France, and is described as containing hints of nuttiness, honey, peaches and apricots.  This is a very expensive, hard to find wine, but if it is able to be found, will be well worth it.

The fourth type of sweet wines are the Port wines, which offer a much more alcoholic take on sweet wines than the other three classifications do. 

Port wines, as the name indicates hail from Portugal. The higher alcohol content of the Port wines often comes from a tiny amount of brandy that is added to the wine after fermentation in a process called fortification

The most well-known variety of port wine is the Ruby Port, which is actually a combination of several different wines. 

The Ruby Port is said to taste like red berries and caramel, and is very sweet.   Another type of Port, Tawny Ports, is actually a sweet blend of different wines, and tends to have hints of figs, dates and prunes.

A third type of Port, White Ports, are a blend of white wines, and often have an alcoholic content of almost 20%, making this a perfect base for a sangria.

Now that we have given a generally accepted definition of what a sweet wine actually is, and we have discussed the four general classifications of sweet wines, along with a few examples of each, let’s move on and explore the other styles of wine in an attempt to learn about the residual sugar levels present in these styles of wine. 

Residual Sugars in Wine - A Brief Classification

Wine Flavors charts

Wines can contain levels of residual sugars that range from zero to as many as 220 grams of residual sugar per liter.

Classifications of wine based on the amount of residual sugar content gives us the following classification system:

  • Dry wine (contains between 1 and 10 grams of residual sugar per liter) Examples of dry wines include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Syrah (or Shiraz).
  • Off-Dry wine (contains between 10 and 35 grams of residual sugar per liter) Examples of Off-Dry wines include some Rieslings, Zinfandels and Chenin Blanc.
  • Sweet wine (contains between 35 and 120 grams of residual sugar per liter) Examples of these were discussed above.
  • Very Sweet wine (contains between 120 and 220 grams of residual sugar per liter) These wines are sometimes simply classified as Sweet Wines.  These are the sweetest of the sweet, and often contain the lowest alcohol levels.

If you are a wine drinker, the best and most accurate method to identify sweetness in wine is to actually look for a tech sheet about the wine you are interested in. Most wine producers will offer technical notes as a courtesy to consumers. 

This is helpful, as it can be nearly impossible to taste exact amounts of residual sugar in wine.  This is due to other qualities of the wine, including acidity levels and tannins.  

If a tech sheet is not available, it is safe to assume that many of the so-called grocery store wines contain more residual sugar than the more expensive wines.

In the more expensive wines, the grapes are of higher quality, so the wine makers do not need to leave as much residual sugar in the wine to make it taste fruity.

About the Author Tim Edison

Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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