Red Wine Varieties Ranked from Dry to Sweet

Red Wine Varieties Ranked From Dry to Sweet

By some estimates, there are over 50 variations of red wine in the world, and no two taste exactly the same. One of the first comments you’ll always see in a wine-tasting note is whether it’s sweet or dry. If you’re unsure which kind best suits your palate, never fear. We’ve ranked 15 of the most popular red wine varieties from dry to sweet to help you choose the perfect bottle.

What Is Wine Sweetness?

Wine sweetness is all about something called residual sugar (RS). Basically, it’s the amount of sugar left in the wine once the fermentation process has stopped. Winemakers can control the sugar content of their wines by lowering the temperature of their cellars or adding alcohol in a process called fortification. By controlling the amount of residual sugar in the wine, winemakers establish whether a wine will be sweet or dry.

Determining Sweetness

You might think you can tell the amount of sugar in a glass of wine just by tasting it, but taste isn’t always an indicator of the true amount of RS. When the RS is below a certain level, detecting the sweetness can be difficult, especially if the wine also has a high tannin content. To really know how to classify a wine, look for an RS percentage on the bottle. 

Red Wines Ranked for You

With so many wines available, we know navigating all the choices can be daunting. If you’re looking to try more red wines, we’ve provided a list of red wine varieties ranked from dry to sweet that can help you choose your next bottle.

Dry Reds

Scientifically speaking, dry reds are wines that have less than 1 percent of residual sugar. You should always check the wine label for the exact RS amount, but these are the most common dry red wines:

Cabernet Sauvignon

Possibly the most popular red wine variety, Cabernet Sauvignon is a classic medium-bodied red that typically has a medium to high tannin content. Some wine experts say that California Cabernets are slightly less dry than their French counterparts. Both are best after at least three to four years in the bottle.

Tempranillo

Tempranillo is the favorite red wine of Spain, and for good reason. Expect high acidity and tannins and a delicious hint of spice. Wines from the Rioja region are always good bets if you’re trying this wine variety for the first time.

Sangiovese

The foundation of Italian red wine, Sangiovese grapes grow all over Tuscany. This wine is central to Chianti wine culture. High in acidity and tannins, Sangiovese is a fantastic pairing for grilled foods.

Pinot Noir

Though not as dry as the first three wines in this category, Pinot Noir tastes drier because of its relatively high acidity. Expect a light body and a famously smooth finish.

Syrah

On the opposite side of the body spectrum is Syrah, known for a rich, meaty flavor that again masks the actual amount of sugar in the wine. Fun fact: one of Syrah’s dominant growing regions is Australia, where it goes by the name Shiraz.

Bordeaux

Technically a blend that includes Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, this popular French wine is dry and full bodied with dark fruit flavors.

Off-Dry and Semisweet

These labels may cause you to think that these wines are sweet, but they’re actually sweet on a mostly imperceptible level. A sommelier may immediately notice the difference between a dry and off-dry wine, but most people aren’t able to taste the difference. This isn’t surprising, since these wines only have about 3 percent residual sugar.

Merlot

People often confuse Merlot with its cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon; both are created from the same grape variety. Though not as dry as some of the other wines on this list, dry Merlots have become far more common in the last several decades. Expect a flavor profile similar to that of a Cabernet.

Malbec

Though it appears most commonly as a blending grape, Malbec grapes have risen in popularity thanks to Argentina, which started planting the French variety in the mid–19th century. Malbecs have a thinner consistency and dark fruit flavors. 

Petit Sirah

Another dark fruit wine, Petit Sirah is a full-bodied wine with high tannins and a high alcohol content. Most Petit Sirahs come from California—make sure to wait at least a decade before popping the cork on one of these!

Zinfandel

Zinfandel is famous for its spicy notes of cinnamon and tobacco. Though not particularly acidic, Zinfandel’s flavors make it a fantastic choice to pair with steak or Middle Eastern cuisine.

Sweet Reds

Once a wine reaches about 5 percent residual sugar, even the average person will notice the sweetness. Below are the most common sweet red wines.

Lambrusco

This Italian family of varieties is known for its herbal flavors and light body. Most Lambruscos appear in the form of a sparkling wine or rosé.

Brachetto

Typically served frizzante (semi-sparkling), Brachetto d’Aqui is another sweet wine with delicious fruit flavors reminiscent of candy.

Dessert Reds

Dessert wines are typically very sweet and high in alcohol, so they’re usually served in small, slightly narrower glasses that emphasize their fruit flavors. These wines go best with desserts that don’t outshine them in sweetness, so try pairing one with a nice New York–style cheesecake.

Port

Named for Portugal, their country of origin, Port wines are usually divided into categories such as Tawny and Ruby. A true dessert wine, Port is very sweet, but it remains full of flavor and nuance.

Vin Santo

The “holy wine” of Tuscany, this dessert wine has nutty, dried-fruit flavors and a full body. Italians often pair it with biscotti because of the shared nut flavors.

Banyuls

This fortified French sweet wine is made from the Grenache or Garnacha grape variety, and it’s best after aging at least 10 years in the bottle. Its red fruit flavors and herbal aromas go very well with chocolate.

Exploring More Reds

If trial and error doesn’t sound fun to you, consider taking part in a virtual food and wine pairing for a curated wine selection. You can follow the guidance of a trained sommelier and enjoy delicious food pairings right from the comfort of your own home. The best part? You can even do a tasting with long-distance friends and family members.

There are so many varieties of red wine that you’re not likely to get to try all of them in your lifetime. However, you can get started by trying a new red from WTSO’s premium collection anytime you’re having red meat, spicy food, pasta, or even dessert.

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