How can a wine be DRY??

**I realize that this article might seem a bit pedestrian for the typical wine-savvy Wine Country BC reader or podcast listener. I write things like this so that these topics can get discussed more often. Sometimes wine knowledgeable people need to be reminded that some things that seem simple are not always obvious to the average person. Also, you might be able to share this kind of thing with friends who may want to learn more about wine.**

There are a couple of things that I’ve noticed that people have trouble understanding about wine. I know this because I am one of those people. Or at least, I was. It’s come up a lot over the past couple of years over the course of my daily work routine at wineries and wine stores. Everyone has their own unique way of learning and understanding the world around them and their own way of communicating about it. Therefore all customers have their own unique ways of explaining how they’ve learned about wine and describing what they like or dislike.

This means that everyone comes to the tasting bar with a different set of parameters about what they like in a wine and what they expect. Pair that with the different experiences and skill levels of whoever the staff is behind the bar and the possibilities of miscommunication or reinforcement of errors is huge. The flavour of oak in wine is one thing that I think many casual wine lovers are somewhat negligent about. (I’ve had customers who state in no uncertain terms that they can’t stand oaked wines praise the lovely cocoa and vanilla aromas in the merlot that I’d just poured for them…) This isn’t as common as the one thing that I’ve noticed that seems to be all over the place in terms of understanding about wine; Dryness in wine.

I always used to wonder why a wine was considered DRY when it was most obviously NOT DRY. Wine is a liquid. Liquids are WET. WET is the opposite of DRY. Right?

Well, no.

Ok, so when I drink a wine and my mouth feels DRY after I swallow it, then that’s a DRY WINE, right?

Again, no. 

Does it have something to do with “after taste”?

No. That is a term that comes from beer ads in the ’80’s and doesn’t make sense for wine. In the wine world, we call it “finish”. Wines can have a short or long finish. But maybe that’s for another article…

When a wine is said to be DRY, that means that there is no sugar in it. It’s that simple. Dry wine is wine that has no perceivable sweetness in it.

Grape juice has lots of sugar in it and tastes sweet. Wine is made by fermentation when yeast will eat the sugar and turn it into alcohol. Eventually, the yeast will eat all the sugar and the wine will be considered to be DRY. At its most basic level, wine is simply grape juice with the sugar completely removed.

Residual Sugar

Sometimes, the wine maker will not want a wine to be completely dry and will opt instead for a wine that has a little bit of sugar left over. This is called “residual sugar” and means that the wine will have some amount of sugar that wasn’t fermented by the yeast. The wine maker may have filtered the yeast out of the wine before it had a chance to eat all the sugar. Alternatively, the wine maker may have added sugar back into the wine after it had been fermented completely dry so that the finished wine has more sugar than it would have had if it were DRY.

A wine that has a little sugar in it may not actually seem to be sweet but may instead appear to be very smooth in texture. A wine with a proper balance of residual sugar and acidity will feel very smooth when you drink it. An imbalanced wine will either be cloyingly sweet (too much sugar) or tart and sour (too much acidity). Some styles of wine are much better with a little sugar (Gewürztraminer here in BC springs to mind) while others are best when completely dry (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon). Most all wines will likely contain at least a tiny amount of sugar since not all of the sugar present in grapes is fermentable.

So DRY wines have no sugar in them, what are wines called when they do have a little sugar?

They are called (creatively) OFF-DRY. Usually off-dry wines won’t appear very sweet at all, if they are done right. They should simply taste smooth. It’s almost more of a texture difference between DRY and OFF-DRY wines. Off-dry wines are great with foods that have a spicy edge to them – Cajun catfish, Thai sauces, southern barbecue, etc. The sugar will offset the heat of the spice and make a wonderful combination.

There are more levels of sweetness in wines that range from DRY, and OFF-DRY. The continuum goes something like this:

  • DRY – least amount of residual sugar
  • OFF-DRY – a little bit of sugar, hardly noticeable to most people
  • MEDIUM – noticeably sweet at this level, great with the really spicy dishes, as an aperitif, or with light desserts
  • SWEET – the sweet stuff – dessert wines, Ports, Madeiras, Sauternes, Late-Harvest wines
  • LUSCIOUS – no other wines are sweeter than this – Icewine, high quality Tokaj

Some grape varieties are great at specific sugar levels but there are some grapes that are marvellous at all sugar levels from bone dry to lusciously sweet. Riesling and Chenin Blanc are two of those grape varieties that we have here in BC that can be made at all residual sugar levels. Riesling’s home is Germany and Alsace but there are many fine examples in BC; Gehringer Brothers (they make 5 different Rieslings at various sugar levels), Tantalus, 8th Generation, and Wild Goose all spring to mind. Chenin Blanc is rarer here but it be made brilliantly at all sugar levels in the Loire Valley and in South Africa.

Balance

This is where the concept of Balance becomes important. Balance refers to the amount of residual sugar and acidity being perceived in balance when tasting a wine. If a wine has tons of sugar (such as in an Icewine) then it must also have tons of acidity to balance it, otherwise the wine will taste cloyingly sweet like syrup. (Every kid growing up in Quebec has, at least once, tried to drink maple syrup. FYI, it’s not as good as you’d think, probably because there is no acid to balance it.) Likewise, a wine with a huge amount of acidity will taste sour and unpleasant if it isn’t balanced with some amount of sugar. When the two elements of sugar and acidity are in balance, the wine will have a smooth texture and be quite pleasing to a lot of people.

Of course there are different styles of wine that make use of tipping that balance to one side or the other. Some wines need to be crisp and refreshing. These wines will be balanced more towards the acidic side of the spectrum. Some people prefer these types of wines while others will find them not enjoyable at all, preferring the sweeter, smoother style. At some point, it simply comes down to personal preference. People who are very wine knowledgeable seem to deride the sweeter styles of wines in favour of the drier style perhaps because of ‘tradition’ or perhaps because sweeter wines are more appealing to the masses and are therefore written off as being ‘simple’. Even within that community, it still boils down to personal preference. For myself, I enjoy a sweeter wine with spicy food or even without food (which I rarely do unless the wine is sweeter) but I do love those very crisp, high-acid wines with meals because I think it pairs better with food.

Most of the time I’ve noticed that to most people balanced wine is like a movie musical soundtrack – nobody notices it at the time but it makes the experience better. A wine without a balance between acidity and sugar is like a movie without any music at all – just kind of awkward and you’re left wondering why you’re sitting in the dark watching a big flash light projecting pictures on a wall. If a wine is good and you like the way it tastes, then it’s good for you. Enjoy!

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

(If you have any questions about wine that you’d like me to tackle at some point, please leave me a comment here or send me a note at winecountrybc(at)yahoo.com, and I will try to answer your question as best I can.)

2 thoughts on “How can a wine be DRY??

  1. Great post, Luke. While I am aware that everyone comes “at” wine in a different way, and with different experiences, the concept of dryness and oaking are two things that are constantly “puzzling” for people. I think you should do a post on oaking as well, as you did a great job clearly elucidating dryness. Personally, I find it difficult sometimes to differentiate medium sweetness. It’s a descriptor I need to keep in mind more often when I’m tasting sweet wines. I usually jump from off-dry to sweet pretty quickly as a result of my personal tastes. I didn’t know you really enjoy sweet wine!

    • Thanks Valerie! The different levels of sweetness are perplexing for sure. The best way to figure it all out is just like other flavours in wine – line up a bunch of them that have different sweetness levels and have at it! I remember doing that in my WSET classes a while back although it’s been a while. Working around one style is what helped me with that kind of thing. I worked at a winery that had a late harvest and I got really used to its sugar level. So when I tried Icewine at another winery, it was pretty clear that it was much sweeter than my benchmark.

      Oak is a great idea! Thanks!

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