Sugar may lie within all wine bottles, but not every bottle is sweet. When speaking of red wine, some types are higher in sugar and taste much sweeter. Others are much lower in sugar and are referred to as bone dry.
But how do you know which red wine is sweet and which isn’t? The last thing you want to do is risk it and end up with a bitter wine in your mouth!
Well, there is no need to panic. If you prefer sweet red wines, we’ll list the names of some well-known sweet bottles below. You’ll find this helpful when you’re next choosing a bottle.
We’ll also look at why some wines are sweeter than others and the names of some dryer red wines.
Can Red Wine Be Sweet?
People often assume that red wine is deep, dry, and potent. Many red wines taste dry due to their great tannin levels, high acidity, and low sugar content.
Popular red wines, like Pinot Noir and Merlot, may taste fruity, but they’re not considered sweet by any means.
Dry red wines may be popular, but several sweet red wines cater to sweet-toothed people. These can be semi-sweet, like a Malbec, or on the decadent end, like Port. We’ll cover what makes red wine sweet below.
Why Are Some Wines Dryer Than Others?
Red wine can drastically vary in taste. Even though wines are made in the same manner, some are very sweet while others are completely dry.
They may be made in the same method, but the difference between dry and sweet wines depends on their residual sugar content.
Residual sugar refers to how much sugar is left in wine once it is bottled and ready to be drunk. All wine is made by fermenting grape juice. Grapes are fruit, so they are high in sugar.
This means that even the driest wine will have some sugars within it.
When wine is fermented, winemakers add yeast which turns the sugars into alcohol, also known as ethanol. The yeast transforms most of the sugars into alcohol, but there will be leftover sugars from the grapes.
In some cases, winemakers may add more sugar to the wine to make it sweeter. The yeast won’t be able to turn all of the sugars into alcohol, so the wine will have a greater amount of residual sugar.
Winemakers can resort to other methods to make their wine sweeter. These include:
Pausing the fermentation process early on. This will stop the yeast from turning as much of the sugars into ethanol, so there will be more residual sugars within the wine.
Choosing grapes that are higher in sugar.
Choosing late harvest grapes which were left on the vine for longer. Extending the ripening time means that the grapes are sweeter.
If the wine is sparkling, winemakers can add a ‘dosage’ between each fermentation. A dosage is a sugar wine solution that will increase the sugar content.
Adding noble rot to the grapes. This is a process that naturally makes the grapes sweeter.
Using brandy to ferment the wine to make Port
Selecting grapes that were frozen on the wine. This makes wine that hasn’t diluted its sugars.
Red Wine Sweetness Degrees
Red wines have many different sugar levels. Some can have just 1% of residual sugar, while others can rack up to 20%.
Sweeter Red Wines
Very sweet red wines are known as dessert wines. These hearty options are laden with sugar and are drunk in smaller quantities. These include the Italian Vin Santo Rosso, and Ruby and Tawny Port.
If you’d prefer a sweet red wine to drink alongside a meal, you may prefer a medium sweet option. Zinfandel is a semi-sweet option. This wine comes from Croatia and has a fruity finish.
You’ll notice notes of strawberries, peaches, and even sweet tobacco.
Lambrusco is another semi-sweet wine with delicious red fruit flavors. This Italian option also has a high acidic content, which harmonizes the wine’s residual sugars well.
Malbec isn’t known as a sweet wine, but it is quite high in sugars compared to other red wines. Malbec is often made with overripe grapes sourced from warmer locations.
A full-bodied red wine, it gives off fruity notes along with pleasant vanilla undertones.
Drier Red Wines
Drier red wines can get confusing. Pinot Noir and Merlot are thought to be dry, but they contain greater residual sugar levels than drier options.
Tempranillo is known as a very dry red wine. This full-bodied wine comes from Spain. It’s very acidic and gives off fig, tobacco, and cherry flavors.
Another dry full-bodied wine is Cabernet Sauvignon. This red wine is high in tannins and emits cherry and blackcurrant flavors. Some also notice savory elements, like cedar and smoke.
Nebbiolo is an Italian full-bodied wine that is extremely dry. It lies at the bottom of the red wine sweetness chart and has lots of tannins, giving the wine lots of weight and consistency.
Nebbiolo has interesting savory notes that blend well with lighter ones, including leather, cherry, and rose.
Here is a list of red wines in order of sweetness for you to consider.
Very Sweet Red Wines
- Tawny Port
- Ruby Port
- Vin Santo Rosso
Sweet Red Wines
- Lambrusco Dolce
- Rosso Dolce
- Brachetto D’acqui
- Beaujolais Nouveau
Mid Sweet Red Wines
Dry Red Wines
- Pinot Noir
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Very Dry Red Wines
Sweet Red Wine Occasions
Very sweet red wines, like Port, are nice alongside a rich dessert. Port can be too sweet for some individuals, but those with a sweet tooth will appreciate its flavors when paired with chocolate or custard.
Some even prefer to drink Port on its own, as a dessert in its own right.
Mid-sweet wines, like Malbec or Zinfandel, are great alongside meat dishes. Their high sugar content means that they age well. If it was stored properly, you could leave a bottle in the cellar for around 10 years.
Both Malbec and Zinfandel are high in alcohol, with some bottles reaching over 15% ABV. It’s best to watch how many glasses you have, as it’s easier to reach your limits with these options.
Dry Red Wine Occasions
Dry red wines, like Pinot Noir or Merlot, are popular choices among red wine fans. When in doubt, choose a bottle of Merlot, as it works well with several cuisines.
Bone dry red wines, like Tempranillo or Nebbiolo, are potent and elegant. The dryness of these wines works well against fattier dishes, like cheese or Mediterranean dishes.
Dry red wines can bring out beautiful undertones that can be lost within the sugar of sweeter ones. This explains why they are a common sight among wine enthusiasts, as they provide a full perceptive experience.
Every wine drinker has their preferences, but both sweet and dry red wines have their advantages. Dry red wines go well alongside heartier dishes. They have interesting savory notes that harmonize well with darker fruit flavors.
Dry red wines are great for those that want a varied drinking experience.
On the other hand, sweet red wines pair amazingly with sweeter foods and give off strong fruity overtones. On the sweeter end, wines like Port or Vin Santo Rosso can be enjoyed with a dessert, or enjoyed on their own as an aperitif.
No matter if your red wine is bone dry, syrup sweet, or somewhere in between, they all have a role to play. If you’re unsure about which one to try, choose a mid-sweet option from the list above.
If you find it too dry, try some bottles from the sweet categories. Likewise, if you find it too sweet, try a few options from the dry group.