What makes a dry red wine? What's the difference between dry and sweet? Let's take the pride and joy of Oregon wine, pinot noir. Red wine like this tastes full of fruit like cherries and sometimes blackberries. So how is it that something with sweet flavors isn't actually considered sweet? These questions have simpler answers than you think.
Wine that's referred to as dry has less than 5% of residual sugar. More than 5% of residual sugar and the wine is referred to as sweet. Our taste buds obviously pick up on this. A dry red wine like pinot noir will almost always have less than 5% residual sugar. Why not add more? Pinot noir is finely balanced to bring out its fruit flavors in a way that doesn't overwhelm. As a dry red wine, you can taste its entire flavor profile and enjoy each. As a sweet red wine, these flavors would be overwhelmed, and the textures and tannins that bring them out on your tongue would become lost.
This doesn't mean that there's no sweetness in pinot noir. Red wine doesn't often need sugar to have a sweet note. Elements like alcohol content, acids, and tannins are just a few that also influence how sweet a wine tastes. Pinot noir's own flavor profile already features sweetness, so keeping it dry keeps it tasting like a full-bodied wine instead of candy.
Most reds wines are kept dry because of this. It never hurts to ask, but if you're self-conscious about making sure a red wine is dry, or not wanting as strong a taste of fruit, try asking for one that's earthy. This is essentially super-secret wine code for a dry red wine that isn't as fruit-focused in its flavors.
One of the advantages of pinot noir is that many varieties feature a robust and darker fruit focus that has depth beyond simple sweetness, all balanced against with earthy, dry qualities.
You may encounter wines with variations on dry and sweet. White wines especially will often be quoted as “medium sweet.” Treat this like it sounds: it's sweet, but not too sweet. You may encounter wines with almost no sugar whatsoever...or you may encounter incredibly sweet wines with sugar that approaches 20%.
Do you like dry or sweet? There’s no wrong answer when it comes to wine!