While enjoying a glass of cabernet the other night with my wife Barbara, I was caught off-guard when she asked, “How in the world can this superb liquid be described as dry?”
A good question because when speaking of wine the term “dry” can be interpreted in many different ways and pose several semantic challenges. It is one of the most used descriptors in the wine world and one of the least understood by many consumers.
As an adjective, “dry” is generally accepted to denote something free of moisture and often analogous to withered or shriveled. It is also used to describe a municipal area where the sale of alcohol is prohibited. So how can this term possibly apply to wine?
Actually the term ‘dry’, when applied correctly, simply means “free of sugar” and is not related to the textural mouthfeel encountered by parching tannins or the excessive tartness of high acidity. I have frequently heard people say during a tasting that they don’t like a particular wine because it is too dry. But what they are really saying is the wine lacks overtly fruity flavors in a white or exhibits a drying texture in the mouth with a red.
Conversely, dry rieslings, gewürtztraminers and other aromatic whites often give a perception of sweetness from their expression of fruit even though they contain no residual sugar. Alcohol at higher levels also contributes to a perception of sweetness seen in many overripe zinfandels and other reds so prevalent in today’s marketplace.
It’s easy to see how such a simple and familiar word can be so misunderstood when describing an impression of wine. And perhaps the subject deserves a more in-depth look at how the interplay of wine’s other components such as acid, tannin, fruit and alcohol affect our awareness of sweet and dry.
Just as dry rieslings and gewürtztraminers may convey a sense of sweetness from their fruit characteristics in the absence of sugar, other wines such as overly-ripe (late picked) chardonnay, zinfandel, cabernet, etc. are thought of as dry but can contain significant levels of residual sugar not necessarily stated on their label or printed descriptions.
Acid is the building block of a wine’s structure and is the most responsible element contributing to the perception of “dryness.” It also works with tannin, fruit, alcohol and even residual sugar to provide balance and aging capability. Acidity potentiates the grip of tannin, which, in turn, can desensitize our palate to fruit. As the grape develops on the vine (and especially as harvest approaches) acid levels decrease as the sugars (potential alcohol) increase. The challenge is to pick at the proper time when acid and sugar along with the complex flavor elements from the skins complement one another.
If picked too late, the resulting wine will be low in acidity, higher in alcohol, more intensely fruit forward and possibly sweet (depending on whether fermentation was able to go through completion or stopped short leaving residual sugar). If picked too early the acidity will dominate the palate impression with a sour note associated by many as “too dry.” But when fruit is picked at the proper time, the wine will exhibit structure and balance with brightness from the acidity, firm tannin (in reds), moderate alcohol and a pleasantly dry (not sweet) impression overall.
Alcohol adds weight and body (aka mouthfeel) to the finished wine, while acidity contributes freshness and brighter notes. Both work well together but either in excess is not necessarily beneficial. Sugar also adds weight to the palate and a pleasant sensory impression when balanced by acidity. But in the absence of acidity, a sweet wine will be cloying in the mouth and not a good partner at the dinner table.
There is an old axiom within the industry that, “Americans love to think dry but drink sweet.” And an in-depth look at the market, along with the frequently misunderstood meaning of “dry” tends to bear this out. In this context, the term dry takes on a very positive connotation associated with the more prestigious brands and varietals. While sweet is more likely related to lesser wines (e.g. the skyrocketing Red Blend category) not intended to deliver complexity and the complete vinous experience.
So is “dry” an attribute when it comes to wine? In its true sense, I would say it is as expressed in the character of many of the world’s finest wines at all prices. However, sweet is not necessarily a negative, especially when associated with many of the fine dessert wines from both New and Old World growing areas.
As always, I look forward to hearing your questions and comments and thank those who sent me theirs in response to my Jan 6 column on “Memorable pairings from 2016?”
Robbie—I share your love of looking back at the past year and reliving some of the great wine experiences I enjoyed. An especially memorable one was a splendid dinner with each of our six courses paired with a lovely Champagne spanning several decades and a multitude of styles. Quite the evening!