Dry white wine is white wine that contains little or no sugar. Dry wines are the opposite of sweet wines.
No laws in the United States dictate how much sugar a dry white wine may have, however in the EU, a dry wine may have up to nine grams of sugar per liter. In practice, however, most dry wines contain much less.
Wine professionals define dry wine more specifically. To them, dry wines have no more than one gram per liter of sugar. They would refer to wine that has more than one gram, but less than nine, as “off-dry.” Wines that have no sugar at all are often referred to as being “bone dry.”
Dry wine vs. popular beverages
- Dry wine - less than 9 grams per liter
- Whole milk - 50 grams per liter
- Orange juice - 90 grams per liter
- Cola - 100 grams per liter
Note that a generous, restaurant pour of wine is 187ml, one quarter of a standard bottle. So, a glass of dry white wine will contain no more than two grams of sugar.
What makes white wine “dry?”
Wine is fermented grape juice. During fermentation, yeast consume the juice’s sugar and produce alcohol. Normally, wine “ferments until dry,” meaning all the sugar has been consumed. Any sugar that isn’t fermented into alcohol is called “residual sugar” or RS.
Why does some dry white wine taste sweet?
Sugar makes things taste sweet. But, so can some other things in wine that are not sugar at all. Alcohol tastes sweet so wines with an alcohol percentage above 14% or so may be perceived as being a little sweet. Glycerol (aka glycerin) is a trace by-product of fermentation and contributes viscosity to wine. It, too, can create the perception of slight sweetness.
Finally, very fruity wines may seem sweet. That’s because our brains associate fruit with sugar and expect fruity-tasting things to be sweet. When we drink a very fruity wine then, our brains may think “sweet” even if the wine is actually bone dry.
All these factors—high alcohol, notable glycerol and substantial fruitiness—are most common in wines made from grapes grown in regions with long, warm, sunny growing seasons where grapes have the chance to become very ripe and have more sugar to convert into alcohol. Napa Valley, Columbia Valley, Southern France and Greece are just a few regions that have long, warm, sunny growing seasons.
Why does some white wine taste dry when it contains sugar?
Our tongues perceive five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Some of those tastes can balance out the others in wine as well as in food. We add sugar to coffee to make it less bitter or to lemonade to make it less sour.
A wine with very high acidity and some residual sugar, such as some German Rieslings, can taste drier than they actually are. Winemakers will often leave a little residual sugar in such a wine to balance a high acidity, so it’s less sour in our mouths. But that balancing of tastes works both ways. Adding acidity to something sugary reduces our perception of its sweetness as well.
Best dry white wines for cooking
For recipes that call for dry white wine, but don’t name a particular variety or region of wine, you can use most anything. Here are some general guidelines though:
- Use young wine, not aged wine.
- Avoid using wine with strong aromas and flavors of oak.
- Use wine you would enjoy drinking.
- The wine doesn’t have to be expensive or complex. Nuances will disappear when the wine is heated.
- Don’t worry about the wine’s alcohol percentage. The alcohol will evaporate during cooking.
- Consider matching the personality of the wine to that of the food.
- For rich dishes, such as risotto with or stewed chicken, use a rich but relatively neutral wine, such as Chardonnay or Pinot Gris.
- For delicate dishes, use a more delicate wine, such as Pinot Blanc.
- For foods that include citrus or herbs, consider a wine with similar notes, such as Sauvignon Blanc.
- For delicate, very gently cooked dishes that you’d like to accent with aromatics, such as steamed fish, consider an aromatic variety like Muscat.
Food pairings with dry white wine
Food and wine pairings can get very specific. But here are general guidelines that will make good pairings easy:
- If there’s wine in the dish, pour the same wine or one that’s very similar.
- Pair full-bodied wines with full-bodied foods.
- Match the intensities of the wine and food—delicate with delicate, strong with strong.
- Pair the wine based on the preparation style and sauces, rather than the type of protein. For example, oaked Chardonnay with grilled chicken, un-oaked Chardonnay with poached chicken.
Some classic food pairings for dry white wines include Chardonnay with seafood in a buttery sauce, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with asparagus and Gewürztraminer with mild, Indian curries such as chicken korma.
Types of dry white wine
Wines made from these common white wine grape varieties are generally dry. Though, again, certain producers’ versions may be a little sweet to satisfy their particular customers.
Albariño - This Spanish variety, most famously from the Rias Baixas region is typically bone dry. But ripe versions may taste vividly of stone fruits and seem a little sweet, even though they are not.
Chardonnay - Chardonnay may be the world’s most widely grown white variety. In most regions, the wines have notable acidity and are bone dry. But some, from warmer regions such as California, can be off-dry. This is most common in wines selling for less than $20.
Grenache Blanc - This Spanish grape (Garnacha Blanca) more commonly associated with southern France has moderate acidity and almost always bone dry.
Grüner Veltliner - Austria’s signature white grape is practically always bone dry. However, some versions from California have rich stone fruit flavors and may seem a little sweet, even though they are not.
Pinot Blanc - This somewhat neutral, Alsace variety has moderate acidity and is usually dry. But some blends that include Pinot Blanc may have palate-pleasing sweetness. And Pinot Blanc may also be made into “late harvest” dessert wines.
Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio - Like Chardonnay, this variety is grown all over the world. In most cases, it’s bone dry. In one of its most prominent regions though, Alsace, it can be off-dry or even dessert sweet. Wines made from this grape in the United States tend to be bone dry if labelled Pinot Gris, but a bit sweet if called Pinot Grigio.
Sauvignon Blanc - Sauvignon Blanc is an aromatic, high-acid variety that is very widely grown. In most regions, the wines tend to be bone dry. But, in some cool-climate regions such as Sancerre and New Zealand, the winemaker may leave a bit of sugar to balance the acidity. And in some regions, mostly famously Sancerre, Sauvignon Blanc is used to make delectable dessert wines.
Torrontes - Torrontes is the primary white wine grape of Argentina. It’s an aromatic variety, similar to Muscat or Gewürtztraminer, but less intense.
Vermentino - The grape, also known as Rolle, is prominent in southern France, Corsica, Sardinia, and parts of northern Italy. It makes food-friendly dry wines that may taste of citrus or stone fruit.
Viognier - This aromatic variety is most common in France’s Rhone Valley and in California. Dry wines made from Viognier tend to be very flavorful with notes of white flowers, stone fruit and, sometimes, a hint of black pepper on the finish.
Wines made from these varieties are often dry, but are frequently off-dry or sweet too:
Chenin Blanc - Chenin Blanc is a French variety found in that country’s Loire Valley, in South Africa, and in California. In almost all cases it is a dry, somewhat neutral variety. The primary exceptions are in the Loire Valley’s Vouvray region. There, the Chenin Blanc is frequently off-dry. Fully sweet versions, called “moelleux,” are popular too.
Gewürztraminer - This popular white grape makes rich, boldly aromatic wines, predominantly with rose petal and lychee fruit flavors. The wines are usually dry. However, in Alsace, it is also used for Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles dessert wines.
Muscat - An ancient and extremely aromatic variety, Muscat is mostly commonly associated with off-dry and sweet wines. However, it can make lovely dry wines. Regardless of sweetness level, the wines are known for grapes, floral, and attractively spicy aromas and flavors.
Riesling - Riesling is a widely-grown, aromatic variety with naturally high acidity. Riesling may be bone dry, off-dry, or fully sweet. In some regions which are relatively warm, such as Austria and Australia, the wines are almost always dry. In very cool regions, such as Germany and New Zealand, the wines are usually somewhat sweet, in order to balance the acidity. In Alsace, California, Oregon, and Washington, both dry and sweet versions are common.