What is Dry Wine?


Busy little yeasty beasties

In my post a few days ago about the correct order for serving different styles of wine I wrote very briefly about what the term “dry” means. I think it’s worth taking a little more time to dig deeper because our perception of dryness can differ from what the numbers indicate. 

As I said, most of the world agrees that if the wine is about .5% sugar, no one can taste it. So, that, or less, is considered dry.

As a quick review, during the fermentation, yeast consumes the sugar in the grape juice and, as it does, the sugar’s converted to heat, carbon-dioxide gas and alcohol. To make dry wine, the winemaker just lets the yeast run amok and use up every last bit of fermentable sugar. To make sweet wine there are various ways of intervening before the wine goes dry, such as chilling the wine, adding sulfur dioxide, adding alcohol… Or, let the wine go dry and add back grape juice.

But there are other things to consider when it comes to our perception, as opposed to the lab report. Fruitiness can trick our palates into detecting sugar that isn’t there. This is especially true with intensely fruity varieties such as Muscat or Viognier. It just takes practice to be able to differentiate – that is most of the time. I think we all still get fooled from time to time – I know I do.

Acid is another trickster. High acidity masks sweetness. Brut Champagne is a good example. The Brut designation indicates it’s a dry bubbly, but the regulations in the Champagne region allow for up to 1.5% sugar. The wine is fermented to dryness and, later, a sweet-wine “dosage” is added to round out the tartness. That’s a far cry from .5! But, it all works out to the taste because the grapes were harvested at a such a high acid that it offsets what would otherwise be very noticeable sweetness. If you ever try a “Brut Nature” or “Zero Dosage” Champagne it’s technically dry and very tart to the taste. 

And, the alcohol is influential, too. I’ll bet most of you have had a red Zinfandel that seemed kind of sweet before – it’s not uncommon. Now, it could be that a little residual sugar was left in, whether it was intentional or not. But, check the label for the alcohol. Some of those Zins are very high octane. And, alcohol tastes sweet without registering as sugar in the lab report.

When I serve a dry, local Cabernet to someone from Bordeaux, I can almost bet that they’ll smile and say “Hmm… it’s a little sweet”. Well, the lab report says it’s dry, but the warm, sunny weather we take for granted here heightens fruitiness, softens acidity and ramps up the alcohol. The wine they drink back home in Bordeaux, a cool-climate situation, seems drier to the taste because, normally, it’s lower in alcohol, higher in acid and not nearly as fruity.

So, as with so many other things in life, it’s a question of context. Cheers! 

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