Wine and wine-related descriptions are among the more inscrutable lexicons of modern consumer products. For the uninitiated, it might seem to require a secret decoding app to unlock the mystery of wine traditions. Wines come from a wide variety of exotic and sometimes unknown places with information expressed in often unintelligible foreign languages. Wine bottles are traditionally sealed with cork – tree bark that can potentially taint the wine within and that requires a special tool to remove. If wine were a new product being designed in today’s marketing-intense world, it might be offered to consumers in a much more user-friendly manner.
Even the basic terminology surrounding wine description demands some translation. White and red are easy enough to understand, although nominally white wines can range from platinum to deep gold and reds from pale crimson to nearly black. Descriptions of wine aromas and flavors can be so florid and extravagant that they cease to be meaningful. Alternatively, descriptors can be so broad and generic they are not useful in discerning differences among wines.
So, what does “dry” mean? A look at the dictionary lists 16 uses of the adjective “dry” before it gets to a wine reference, which is “lacking sweetness” followed by “having all or most sugar fermented into alcohol.” It is not surprising, given the wide use of “dry” in so many ways, that there is confusion about the term when it relates to the taste of wine. Questions regarding whether a given wine is “dry” or “sweet” are an everyday occurrence to anyone who sells wine. Perceptions of “dryness” vary widely, and understanding of the term are perhaps even more far-flung.
For the wine industry, the term “dry” refers to the level of residual sugar in a wine. Wine is created by converting the sugar in the grapes into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the action of yeast. The actual process is far, far more complex than that, but the sugar-to-alcohol conversion is the basis of wine. Every wine contains at least a vestige of sugar, since some sugars prove unfermentable in any winemaking process. The unfermentable sugars are negligible, comprising only about 0.1% by volume. Every person has their own threshold for sensing residual sugar in a wine. Most people, however, cannot sense sugar until it reaches a concentration of around 0.5% to 0.7% and often higher. Sugar is most often sensed on the very tip of the tongue, but other elements can confuse the palate into thinking that it is sensing sugar, when it really isn’t there. Those are the basic physical parameters in the dry/sweet evaluation.
Acidity level is one component that adds to the confusion. Acidity is the tart element that activates your salivary glands. Wine is an acidic beverage, so tartaric, malic and other acids are present in all wines. Wines from cooler climates or from less-ripe grapes exhibit higher acidity. Think of those moments when you have eaten a less than perfectly ripe grape or other fruit. The fruit acids provide quite a zing to the palate. As the fruit ripens, the sugars increase, and the acids decrease. When fruit is overripe, the sensation on the palate is dull and flabby. When fruit is perfectly ripe, though, there is a wonderful explosion of flavor with the sweetness of the sugar perfectly balanced by the tartness of the acids. Thus, high acid wines, even though they contain residual sugar are considered “dry” by many because of the effect of the acid zing on the palate.
Alcohol also has a sweet impression on the palate, even though it is not sugar. Many modern wines have alcohol levels of 14% or more and impart a sense of sweetness. Ripe fruit has a sweet impression as well. When we smell the esters that fruity wines show in their aromas, our minds expect a sweet taste. When wines are made from very ripe fruit and have high alcoholic content, they will have a sweet impression on the palate, even though there is scant sugar when measured.
Tannins are another element in wine that adds to the dry/sweet confusion. Tannins are extracted from the skins and stems of grapes, as well as the oak barrels in which some wines are aged. Red wines, because they extract their color from the skins of the grapes, have more evident tannins. Those tannins will soften as a red wine ages, so a wine will show slightly more aggressive and mouth-drying tannins in its youth. That somewhat astringent sensation created by the tannins can physically dry out the palate, regardless of any residual sugar content. The current popularity of skin-contact white wines adds the mouth-drying tannins for white wine drinkers as well. It is not surprising that consumers equate “dry” wines with the drying sensation of tannins.
It seems that oak aging can be confused with sweetness. Many wines are aged in oak barrels or even fermented in barrels for some period in the vinification process. Oak, particularly new oak, adds a vanilla-like character to a wine as well as the wood tannins that leach out of the barrel. Thus, there is a sensation of sweetness from the vanillins combined with an astringency from wood tannins that many wine drinkers associate with “dry” wines. In fact, many modern “dry” Chardonnays have a recognizable level of residual sugar that is masked by a heavy overlay of oak character.
Still other consumers consider wines “dry” if they are less sweet than some other wines from their inventory of lifetime tasting experience. Consequently, those who remember their first wine encounters with wines like White Zinfandel, Moscato or sweet Kosher wines have a reference point of very sweet wines, ranging from 4% to 15+% residual sugar. A wine with 1.5 - 2% residual sugar, even though the sweetness is perceptible, may be considered a “dry” wine in that context. It all depends on a person’s reference point.
Dryness and sweetness can be measured in a lab, and sometimes that information is printed on the back label of a wine. Additionally, some areas have codified what is dry and off-dry, etc. in wine law, but those regulations can vary from place to place. The final evaluation, however, comes from consumers, since they are providing the economic incentive for all the wine business. Since it is unlikely that the wine-purchasing public will ever have a common understanding of the term “dry,” it remains incumbent on the seller to be aware of the myriad factors that might influence an individual’s understanding of that term. Whether you are a buyer or a seller, understanding the term better will yield greater wine pleasure from your selections.