Friday, February 5, 2010

The misconception of the "dry" wine

This may sound like an unfair, snobbish criticism of less-experienced wine drinkers, but frequently the casual drinker, when asking for a recommendation, will emphasize, "I like dry wines." Okay. So you like regular table wine. "No, I want it dry." Houston, we have a semantics problem.

Most people, when they say they like dry wines, are not trying to distinguish between table wines (which are usually dry) and dessert wines (which are usually sweet). They also usually are not talking about Riesling or Muscadet or other off-dry wines, since they are white wines, and most people today (for no good reason) like to say they only drink red wine. No matter. The answer is pretty simple.

Table wine -- what you have in your hand as you read this blog, one hopes -- is dry. That is to say, the fermentation process of turning sugar into alcohol completed leaving no residual sugar. This ought to prevent the wine from tasting cloying or sweet, as well as (for red wines) allow the tannins to flex their muscle. And it is the tannins in red wine that most people think of when they say, "I like dry wines." Tannins are found in oak and the seeds, skins, and stems of grapes. They leave your mouth feeling dried out or, if the wine is exceptionally tannic, make your mouth pucker.

There are folks who have said they enjoy dry wines who don't like a particular Pinot Noir they taste. They call it "sweet." No! It is fermented dry! The lab results show there is no residual sugar! But this is not what they mean. Often, experience demonstrates, those who claim an affinity for dry wines like big, robust red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Zinfandel -- even the dreaded Merlot (with certain exceptions). These are all wines generally higher in tannins than, for example, Pinot Noir or Gamay -- or, of course, white wines.

This is not to say that a bone dry wine, with no residual sugar, can't taste sweet. It happens all the time, particularly given the modern viticultural trend that strives for higher degrees of ripeness in grapes. How do you measure a grape's ripeness? By Brix, that is, the amount of sugar in it.

To create wine, as you know, a winemaker needs to convert that sugar into alcohol by relying on yeast during the fermentation process. Picking grapes that contain more sugar means that, potentially, there will be more alcohol in the finished wine. But the winemaker may not want to do that. In today's world, the winemaker has options: (1) let the wine complete fermentation and slap the 18% alcohol on the label; (2) recognize the issue before the grapes begin fermenting and water it back (that is, add water to reduce the level of potential alcohol); (3) let the wine complete fermentation and send it to a lab to remove alcohol in a spinning cone (yes, this happens); or (4) leave some of that residual sugar in the finished wine, not allowing the wine to ferment until it is completely dry.

In any of the above scenarios, with riper grapes being used to make the wine, the fruit profile tends to taste a bit sweeter than in wines picked at lower sugar levels. This isn't a bad thing. It's a value judgment about what sort of flavors you like in wine. And even riper grapes don't taste that sweet when they are well-balanced with acidity and tannins.

In short, don't worry about all this technical stuff. As a wine drinker -- and being a wine drinker is the most important thing -- all you have to concern yourself with is whether you like the wine. If you do? Drink it. If you decide you really like it? Drink some more. If you don't like it? Drink something else.

1 comment:

Hawk said...

Good points, Tom. I'm going to show this post to my wife Stephanie, who, funny enough, just asked me yesterday what "dry" wine is (I told her I don't know.) No doubt she heard the term used (or mis-used) among her grad school set.

Way to keep the knowledge going!