What if I told you close to 90% of the wines in your local store, or on a wine menu, are actually dry?
Using the phrase “dry” wine as a descriptor is one of the first things people learn when describing a wine and trying to narrow down what a they like or don’t like. It is definitely the most common request I hear at work. While it isn’t necessarily wrong to describe a wine as dry, there are some misconceptions as to what the term really means.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and even a handful of Rieslings at your wine shop, grocery store, or on a wine list...all dry. Even when we describe a wine as fruity or fruity forward it can still be considered (and usually is) a dry wine.
Let’s break this down.
What makes a wine "dry"?
Dryness in a wine is determined by the levels of residual sugar (RS) left after fermentation is complete. During the winemaking process, yeast eat up sugars in grape juice creating alcohol and carbon dioxide. A winemaker decides on the sweetness level of their wine by letting the yeast eat all of the sugars or by stopping fermentation early so that there is some residual sugar left in the wine. These lead to having a semi-sweet/off-dry or sweet wine.
Red Wine: Tannins vs. Level of Dryness
In red wine, there is confusion between dryness and tannin. In addition to certain flavor compounds, tannins are found in the grape skins and seeds. This compound is what actually causes a drying sensation in our mouth, particularly around your gums and on your tongue. It's the same bitter/drying sensation you get with black tea. Grape skins also provide color in a wine, which is why you find varying tannin levels in red wines and skin-contact or orange wines over white wines. For a majority of white wines, skins are not left in contact with the juice during the winemaking processes.
Tannin levels vary from grape to grape. Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Grenache have low to medium levels of tannin making a wine feel more “juicy” or “fruity” to some. Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Syrah have medium to high tannin levels. All of these wines are considered dry wines even if one tastes more fruity than the other.
Some grapes have more earthy or spicy primary characteristics, which can make a wine taste more "dry". For instance, California Pinot Noir will taste more "fruity/sweet" than a Pinot Noir from Oregon or Burgundy, which tend to be more earthy. Both, however, are dry wines.
White Wine: Fruity vs. Levels of Dryness
Fruity and fruity forward vs. dryness also comes into play when talking about white wines. This is probably the most common misunderstanding when describing a white wine as “dry”. A wine can be dry, think New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Austrian Riesling, but still fruit forward. This means the primary characteristics of the wine are fruit. Pineapple, stone fruits, lemon, etc. These aromas vary based on the grape and where the vines are located. For example, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is very fruit forward whereas Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, France is more mineral driven. Mineral wines can come off as “dry” when in fact the dryness level is a completely separate category.
Acidity levels can also play a role in the perception of sweetness in a wine. Think about biting into a lemon. That mouth-watering sensation is from the acidity of the lemon. High acid wines, such as Riesling and Chenin Blanc, can appear to have lower RS levels because the acidity balances out the sweetness.
So, what does this all mean?
If you have used “dry” as a way to describe wines you like or don’t like, you are not alone. And no one is judging you for the terms you use. Most wine professionals will be able to point you in the right direction by asking a few more questions. Going beyond the term “dry” will simply help you find wines you really enjoy.
Here are a few ways to pin down your preferences when drinking wine. Consider which of these characteristics would you want most in your glass:
Earthy (forest floor, mushroom), Fruit Forward (citrus, stone fruit, tropical fruit), Floral, Spicy, vs. Mineral (slate, wet rocks, salinity)
Tannin levels - more drying (high) - more juicy (low)
Acidity levels - mouth-watering (high) - smoother, less tart (low)
Actual sweetness levels - Ask for wines with some RS such as off-dry Riesling or dessert wines like Sauternes
Think about these the next time your at your local wine shop or looking over a wine list.
Photo by John Jennings