What is a "Dry" Wine, Anyway?
One of my main goals in writing this column is to help readers develop their wine knowledge and, in doing so, increase their enjoyment of wine. An important part of this development is learning to use wine-specific terminology in the same ways that wine pros do. Without a common language, after all, we have no reliable way to communicate about—and learn from—our wine drinking experiences. This is especially true when two people are using the same word to mean different things, virtually guaranteeing miscommunication.
Such is often the case with the descriptor “dry.” For most novices, dryness seems to equate to a combination of astringency and bitterness. Astringency in wine is caused primarily by tannins, and it is that puckery feeling you get from over-steeped tea or accidentally chewing up a grape seed (or, if you’re a cartoon cat, accidentally sucking a pile of alum through a straw). Bitterness can be caused by a number of different factors (the presence of various phenols, certain kinds of oak, specific grape varieties and winemaking techniques), and it is—well, anybody who’s had a cheap cup of coffee knows what bitterness is.
The fact is, however, that a dry wine is simply a wine with very little residual sugar in it relative to its acidity. (Acidity mitigates sweetness; that’s why we add vinegar to a too-sweet salad dressing to make it more savory, and that’s why dessert wines with high levels of acidity taste vibrant rather than sticky and cloying.) Dryness, in short, is essentially a quantitative measurement. In the European Union, for example, wines with 4 grams of sugar or less per liter of wine (assuming a relatively low level of acidity) are considered dry.
I note this fact because I frequently hear people saying, “I don’t like dry wines,” when what they really mean is, “I don’t like bitter or astringent wines.” Many ripe, full-bodied wines can be, technically, bone-dry but still please most people’s palates with their round, easy-drinking, fruit-forward flavors. And many slightly sweet wines can still have off, bitter flavors or be astringently tannic. Being able to make this distinction when talking to a wine salesperson can help you zero in on that perfect wine. It at least reduces your risk of going home with a sweet, sticky red that tastes like it should be poured into a club soda rather than a wine glass.
So next time you go into a wine shop, instead of looking for a wine that’s not too dry, try asking for something that’s “round,” “fruit-forward,” and not too tannic or oaky (tannins and oak being major contributors to astringency and bitterness respectively). Chances are you’ll find just what you’re looking for.