The majority of the world’s quality wine is dry, but interestingly, some of the most famous, long-lived, and expensive wines are, in fact, sweet. Wine lovers rave about vintage port from decades ago and clamor for a taste of the celebrated d’Yquem. Tokaji’s mythical essencia is traditionally served not from a glass but from a crystal spoon. Recently, however, there’s been an uptick not in these world-renowned dessert wines, but in dry cuvées from those same regions. Some might call it blasphemy, using grapes coveted for sweet wine production to make dry table wines. Well, they are wrong.
There’s never been a better time to seek out these dry wines. Lots of producers in these sweet wine regions, many of which have been renowned for their dessert wines for centuries, are suddenly shifting their efforts into producing more dry wine. The reason has everything to do with changing consumer preferences and, therefore, changing demand. Wine drinkers traditionally tended to crave wines that were much sweeter, from the demand of Europeans and colonists alike for sweet, fortified wine during and after the Age of Exploration, to the sweet styles of Champagne produced in the 1800s, all the way up until the White Zinfandel and Liebfraumilch-laden trends of the 1950s to the ’80s. But in the last 20 to 30 years, wine trends have flipped, and today, dry wines are in much higher demand than sweet.
The wine category that has suffered the most from these changing trends is, unsurprisingly, dessert wines. The custom to end a meal with a glass of Sauternes or top off an evening with a dash of sherry has fallen by the wayside and is generally seen as old fashioned by today’s wine drinkers. In order to remain profitable, sweet wine producers have had to adjust philosophies. Rather than abandoning their standard-bearing sweet wines, they have started focusing on dry wines as well.
The opportunity to explore dry wines from these traditional sweet wine regions is an excellent one for wine lovers. First of all, these dry wines are typically less expensive than their sweet counterparts, as the vinification process is less labor-intensive and can yield more wine (ripe, healthy grapes produce more wine than shriveled or dried ones), affording consumers the ability to purchase wines from regions that they could not otherwise afford. And secondly, dry wines allow for the grapes to express themselves more purely, showcasing varietal flavors in a truer sense.
Sweet wines are often made in one of three methods: botrytis, a process where the mold on the grapes drains the water from them, leaving behind concentrated flavors; fortification, the process of adding a distilled spirit to the base wine; or appassimento, where the grapes are dried in the sun prior to fermentation. But when you apply one of these methods to your grapes, the wine’s flavors come not only from the grapes, but from the winemaking as well.
Ready to find some of these wines for yourself? Look for dry examples from these four sweet wine regions.
Dry white wines from Bordeaux are by no means a new concept, but Sauternes (along with neighboring sweet wine regions Cérons and Barsac) has classically been known for producing arguably the world’s most famed dessert wine. Honeyed, botrytis-inflicted “liquid gold,” wines labeled Sauternes must always have residual sugar. Producers of Sauternes have always generally made some dry wine, but faced with declining sweet wine sales, the production of dry wine has increased in a major way.
While white Bordeaux blends can be made from Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle, Sémillon is the key grape used Sauternes, as its skins are most affected by botrytis. It’s also less commonly seen as the sole or dominant grape in a dry white wine. Flavor-wise, dry Sémillon wines walk that fine line between richness and freshness, with red or golden apple fruit, bright citrus-like acidity, nutty, stony minerality, and round, viscous texture. However, dry Sauternes wines aren’t always a bargain; Chateau d’Yquem’s dry ‘Y’ cuvée, while less expensive than the noted Sauternes, still retails for between $150 and $250, depending on the vintage.
While the fortified port is named after the city in which it was traditionally aged — Porto — the grapes are grown just down the river, about 90 minutes inland, where gorgeously steep, terraced vineyards rise above the Douro River in Portugal. This is the Douro wine region, and while port is still integral to the vintners here, they take full ownership of the dry reds and whites coming from these vineyards, so much so that dry Douro wines have their own legal appellation: DOC Douro. Port, on the other hand, must be labeled as DOC Porto.
A plethora of grape varieties grow throughout the Douro Valley, but the most important to both dry and sweet wines is Touriga Nacional, a red grape that, in its dry form, has the potential to become a new favorite for many wine lovers. It is characterized by bold blackberry and black cherry fruit, violets, chocolate, and herbal notes. Douro reds tend to be full-bodied and fruit-forward — the Douro is quite warm, after all — but the whites can have good, refreshing acidity, due to cool nighttime temperatures. Rosés and sparkling wines are also rapidly increasing. Keep an eye out — this is one region where dry wines may outpace sweet wines for good.
The word “Tokaji” is seen by most as synonymous with the richly sweet, late-harvest, often botrytis-inflicted dessert wine for which Hungary is most known. This is actually Tokaji Aszú, a type of Tokaji wine produced in the region of Tokaj – confused yet? The bottom line is that Tokaji wine can actually be made in a range of styles from dry to sweet, all using the key grapes of Furmint and Hárslevelű.
Furmint is more widespread in the region due to its susceptibility to botrytis, and it produces extremely interesting dry wines. They can be oaked or unoaked, and rather than having the sweet versions’ exotic spiced marmalade, orange oil, honeyed richness, the fruit is fresher: peach, lemon, orange blossom, and more. The wines often have excellent texture and a savory quality to them. Some Tokaji producers offer convenient information as to whether the wine is dry or sweet; the word “száraz” indicates a dry wine.
Marsala’s reputation might date back nearly to the origin of other fortified wines like port, sherry, and Madeira, but today it is more known for its role in a classic chicken-and-mushroom dish than for being among the world’s top sweet wines. This is because in the 1960s, the western Sicilian region’s large cooperatives started focusing on churning out large quantities of wine, rather than quality bottles, and cooking Marsala began appearing in grocery stores rather than wine shops. At its best, Marsala is a rich, nutty, oxidative wine with bright acidity made from white grapes.
The best grape for Marsala wine is Grillo, so it makes sense that this is the top grape used for the region’s dry wines as well. It stands up well to the island heat, as the Marsala region doesn’t see eastern Sicily’s benefit of elevation, without sacrificing acidity. The wines can range from light, crisp, and citrusy to textured, complex, and savory. There is often a distinct mineral component to these wines as well, due to the rocky, volcanic, sea-proximal soil. Most dry Marsala wines are labeled as DOC Sicilia or IGT Terre Siciliane, general appellations that cover the entire island.