Typically wine questions arise while drinking wine. The question of dry wine is no different. As I was sharing some elegant Reisling made by hope & grace winery with celebrities at a recent Emmy Awards party, the question came up over and over: What is dry wine? What makes a wine dry? Does dry mean it is not sweet? Does it have more alcohol? Will I get a headache?
Ok, the questions were endless and that is precisely why we try to share as much knowledge about wine as possible with the new wine lovers we come in contact with. After all, “Quench Your Thirst For Knowledge“ is our motto.
What is Dry Wine?
Wine would be labeled as “Dry” when all of the grape sugar has been converted to alcohol during the fermentation process. Therefore, there would not be any residual sugars. However, it is possible that it could still be described as sweet if the person describing the wine has a low sugar diet and is far more sensitive to the sweet sensation or if the grapes were harvested late or if during barreling there is a distinct flavor that is given off by the barrel.
Where Does The Sweet Go?
Yeast works it’s magic during fermentation to “eat” the sugar thus, leaving the wine with less sweetness. That transformation results in higher alcohol content. When this process is complete all of the yeast is killed off by the alcohol and no residual sugar is left.
Easy Definition, Right?
This is where the term “dry wine” gets tricky. You see there is a bit of a misconception from some wine drinkers that sweet wine is bad. Or better stated, you are not as refined when you desire sweet wines. Wrong. Sweet wines can be quite the experience and pair quite well with the right food.
Just because a wine creates a sensation of dryness on your tongue does not automatically make it a dry wine. Those are tannins.
Tannins: A group of organic substances responsible for the mouth-drying quality in a structured red wine. They can also be present in white wines such as Pinot Grigio and Gewurtztraminer, which are made from pinkish-red grapes. The primary source for tannin in wine is found in the skins of the grapes, although it may also come from the oak treatment, seeds, and stems. Some grapes naturally have more tannic compounds than others and their levels of strength are determined by style and maceration time.
You could have a wine high in tannins and dry. That just means that it will have less residual sugar and it will leave you with an astringent taste sensation on your tongue.
Astringent: A mouthwatering sensation associated with tannins, particularly less ripe tannins. While it is often associated with bitterness, astringency is actually a tactile sensation and not a taste. Although a flaw when it dominates the mouthfeel of a wine, many Italian wines, both red and white are intentionally produced with a bit of astringency.
The easiest way to figure this out, after drinking what you like, is to remember that if a wine is not sweet then it is dry. It may have tannins and it may have higher alcohol if it is dry but those things do not make it dry.
What Dry Wines Should You Choose?
Well, you should drink what you like but consider the Italian reds from Tuscany and Piedmont. The Sangiovese grape will deliver a dry Chianti and the big flavors of Nebbiolo will produce a dryer red wine. Remember, you’ll still taste the grapes they just won’t taste like grape juice.
When you move to the French Burgundies you’ll notice the sweet factor go up. While still a dry wine there will probably a bit more residual sugar in the wine. They are by no means sweet and they are still classified as dry but you can taste the difference.
Need more technical info? Take a look at this explanation of tech sheets and geek out on some more details about this process and winemaking in general. If you would rather just drink, I understand, so would I.
Find a dry Resiling and a sweet Reisling and compare the two. Then, find a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Rioja and see what you think is the difference in sweetness.
The best way to learn about wine is to just drink them! Have fun. Drink with friends and pontificate about what you think you are drinking.
If someone says you are wrong, scowl at them and don’t invite them to your wine dinners anymore! Ha!