Identifying Sweet White Wines

A definitive guide to varieties, styles, and winemaking methods

White Wine Glasses

GettyImages | Maren Caruso

Sweet wines often provide a gateway to understanding wine and converting would-be wine enthusiasts away from other sweet alcoholic beverages such as cocktails and mixed drinks. Sweet white wines come in a wide array of styles and flavor profiles that have been produced for centuries before becoming popular and trendy in recent decades. They offer a dazzling array of profiles, from floral, bright, and citrusy to fruity, unctuous, and honeyed.

The Scale of Sweetness

Sweetness in wine is measured by how much residual sugar (RS) remains in the wine after alcoholic fermentation is completed, usually measured in grams per liter. Generally, this residual sugar is naturally-occurring, meaning it is fructose produced by the grapes during the growing season that remains unfermented by yeast. In all wines, yeast consumes sugar and converts it into ethyl alcohol. What sugar the yeast does not convert into alcohol will remain in the wine. There are certain production methods that winemakers use to ensure that the finished wine retains sweetness. Some methods involve halting fermentation before the yeast consumes all the sugar; usually by greatly chilling the wine in order to stall the yeast followed by filtration to ensure yeast is removed. Other methods are more traditional and don’t rely on refrigeration technology, such as fortification. Fortification involves adding neutral grape spirits or brandy to a fermenting wine, halting the yeast by creating an environment too alcoholic for fermentation to continue. This process is most commonly used in traditional dessert wines such as Port, Madeira, and Sherry. 

Winemakers use refractometers to measure grape sugars.  GettyImages | Dariya Angelova / EyeEm

White Wines: Sweet vs. Fruity

In order to properly identify residual sugar and sweetness in wine, it is important to decipher if the palate is perceiving actual sugar or only the fruit flavored compounds that remain after fermentation is complete. A dry wine is one with no remaining perceptible residual sugar after alcoholic fermentation. A sweet wine is opposite of dry, meaning some residual sugar remains unconverted into alcohol. As a general rule, the lower the Alcohol By Volume percentage (ABV) in a wine, the higher the residual sugar will be. If a table wine has a higher ABV, such as 12.5% and above, there will likely be no perceptible residual sugar and the wine is considered dry. Referencing a wine’s label for ABV will give drinkers an indication of a table wine’s sweetness before consuming. Since the human palate is genetically geared to associate fruit flavors with sugar, it may take some practice to disassociate these fruity phenolic compounds that may remain after a full alcoholic fermentation is complete. Commonly misconstrued styles are dry yet fruity red wines such as Pinot Noir or Zinfandel and some styles of Rosé and Chardonnay. In recent years, initiatives by the International Riesling Foundation and other regional wine entities have moved toward including a sweetness indicator on the back labels as well, helping consumers decipher the array of styles without much confusion. 

Illustration with text describing six different types of sweet wines.
The Spruce / Miguel Co

Styles of Sweet White Wine to Explore

Table Wines

Table wines are those considered traditionally produced with no special additives, harvest techniques, or aging regimes like the styles explained below. Due to particular climatic conditions and grape variety traits, these wines generally are made into sweeter styles of wine that retain much of their unfermented sugars while displaying crisp, mouthwatering acidity, but they may be fermented all the way to dryness, leaving a racy and crisp wine. Be sure to check the ABV percentage to better determine the sweetness levels of these styles. Riesling from Germany, Washington, and Australia offer prime examples of bright, citrus-driven whites with juicy but not cloying sweetness to balance the high acid. Chenin Blanc produced in California and often labeled as Vouvray in France showcases floral, somewhat nutty and dried fruit flavors alongside balanced honeyed sweetness. Moscato from Italy and the U.S. may be bottled in the frizzante style, meaning on the verge of sparkling. Generally, these styles originate in the region of Asti in Italy, and will commonly show the term “d’Asti” on the label. Perfumed and floral with juicy stone fruit flavors, the slight sparkling quality lightens the sugar and enhances the crisp acidity. Other unique varieties to explore are Gewürstraminer from France and Torrontés from Argentina. 

Unfortified Dessert Wines

Unfortified Dessert Wines such as Icewine (Eiswein), Sauternes, Tokaji or Late-Harvest styles rely on specific growing conditions in the vineyard to reflect their distinct sweetness and unique flavor profiles. These wines generally have somewhat higher ABV levels due to these specific production methods, possibly reaching levels of 14% ABV. In Late-Harvest wines, grapes are intentionally left to ripen on the vine as long as possible, meaning the grape has produced the highest levels of sugars attainable before they are harvested. In these wines, there is so much available sugar that the yeast cannot convert it all before producing sufficient alcohol halts the yeast and fermentation cannot continue. In Icewine (Eiswein), this Late-Harvest technique is taken one step further. Harvest is conducted only after this Late-Harvest fruit has been allowed to freeze on the vine. Harvest and pressing is generally conducted at night while the grapes are still frozen and the unctuous, sticky juice is pressed away from the still-frozen water crystals in the grapes. Like with Late-Harvest wines, the natural sugars prove too much for the yeast to consume before falling out of the solution. Sauternes and Tokaji are types of wine made with grapes that become affected with a specific form of mold while ripening in the vineyard. Called “noble rot,” or botrytized wines, the Botrytis cinerea fungus only grows on the ripe fruit when conditions are perfect. This beneficial mold-like fungus will microscopically perforate the skin of the grape, allowing water to evaporate when the weather is dry, further concentrating the sugars and unctuous juice before pressing and fermentation commences. 

Botrytis on the vine
Botrytis, also called "Noble Rot" is a beneficial fungus that makes sweet wine.  GettyImages | Minh Hoang Cong / 500px

Fortified Dessert Wines

Fortified dessert wines such as Port, Madeira, and Sherry are created by adding neutral grape spirits or brandy to the fermenting wine to halt production and raise the alcohol levels. Due to fortification, these wines will retain some of their natural residual sugar as well as a higher alcohol content due to the added brandy, usually achieving somewhere between 15-20% ABV. White Port, Sherry, and Madeira are all white wines that go through several unique and regional winemaking and blending techniques to create their various styles. While the majority of Sherry is usually dry, Cream or Pedro Ximenéz Sherries are sweet and unctuous. Madeira is a wine that is fortified part way through fermentation, then slowly heated to create an oxidizing and aging effect. Unlike Sherry, nearly all Madeira is sweet except for Sercial and often Verdelho styles. These wines in general produce rich, raisinated, dried fruit and nut flavors that are perfect alongside cheese as an aperitif or paired with a dessert.