Q & A: Is Dryness in Wine Relative?

Question from Jon: I remember from my early days, just getting into wine, I took a component tasting class at Merryvale. What kept blowing all us away is that whenever we were asked if a wine we were tasting had any residual sugar, we always said, “yes.” But the correct answer kept coming back as “bone dry!” 

Reply: In truth, Jon is the owner of Pantheon Cellars these days so, for him, this question was answered yea, long ago. But it’s still a good one!

In my early days, like most novices, it was comforting to cling to absolutes and my answer to the question would probably have been “No.” But, as we learn more about virtually everything in life – not just wine – we figure out that there are many shades of gray. It makes life more complicated, but also more interesting don’t you think? 

Here’s the deal: If you work in the absolute environment of a wine lab then you’d know that we say the wine is dry if it measures half of a percent sugar or less. Winemakers generally let the yeast use up all the ferment-able sugar, when they set out to make a dry wine, and that will put them at around .02% or something like that – very, very dry. However…

Fruitiness tricks your brain/palate into detecting sugar that ain’t there. When I serve a bone-dry Viognier there’s a pretty good chance that the taster will say “This is too sweet for me – do you have anything drier?” And, I’ve learned that this taster actually doesn’t much care for very ripe, fruity wines. 

Three things are at work there, really. 

#1: Viognier is a luscious variety that generously displays stone fruit like apricot and peach, and is also quite floral. Honeysuckle probably got its name because it smells sweet, right? But, your nose can’t detect sugar. 

#2: You won’t get all those lovely fruity and floral aromas and flavors unless the Viognier grapes are quite ripe. Very ripe translates to high sugar at harvest which equals high alcohol in the bottle. Alcohol lends the impression of sweetness. 

#3: As the sugar goes up, the acid goes down so there often isn’t much acid to offset the sweetness. We’re about to go into this a little more. 

In any case, you’ve got a triple whammy. The fruitiness, soft acidity and the alcohol have tricked you into thinking the wine is sweet. And, that’s OK – you either like it or you don’t. The more you taste (as opposed to drink 😉 the easier it will be for you to differentiate. But, even then, you’ll get it wrong sometimes – who cares?

Acid is a great trickster. The higher the acid, the drier the wine tastes. That’s why I decided not to use Riesling as my example, above. Well-made Riesling is usually quite high in acid, which disguises the sweetness. The good ones have a clean, delightful sweetness – a little or a lot. If you’ve tasted a Riesling that you thought was completely cloying, it probably didn’t have enough acid. Look to cool climates like Germany, New York and New Zealand for crisp, delicious dry or slightly sweet Riesling.

My favorite example of acid as a trickster is the bubbly stuff. In the Champagne region the wine called Brut is what you buy when you want a dry one. But, they actually allow wine that’s up to 1.5% sugar to be called Brut because the acid is so high. And, a mouthful of Brut should never make you screw up your face in reaction to cloying sweetness. It tastes dry but, perhaps, richer than the next Brut on the shelf that’s only .75% sugar. A white wine that’s 1.5% sugar with a lower acid will taste quite sweet to you.

If you want to try to gage the acid in order to get a better take on the sweetness, remember acid makes your mouth water, along the sides of your tongue and under your tongue, especially. The higher the acid the more it waters. If you really want to get down to brass tacks, you should get a copy of Jancis Robinson’s How To Taste. She has all kinds of experiments that help you detect these main components, even differentiating between malic and tartaric acid, for heaven’s sake! 

But, the most important thing to do is enjoy the wine, whether it’s dry or sweet. That’s what it’s all about, right? 

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