“Is it dry?”
Of the many curveball wine-shopping questions I get, this is the one that throws me for a loop. It’s not because I don’t know the answer, or because I haven’t heard it a million times. It’s because the question is actually pretty useless to the vast majority of our customers, and I have a whole inner struggle over whether to tell them why or just answer with what I suspect they want to hear instead.
When people say “dry,” they usually mean “not sweet” (with the exception of the handful of people who have asked me for a “sweet dry wine,” which, I don’t even know). But here’s the thing: Just about every wine over maybe $9 that isn’t specifically a dessert wine is technically dry.
To make wine, you ferment grape juice, which contains a lot of sugar. (Think about sweet grapes picked right off the vine—they’re delicious!) Yeast consumes the sugar in the juice and produces ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide, so the more sugar the yeast consumes, the more alcohol the finished wine contains.
Because grapes can only get so ripe (read: sweet) while maintaining optimal acidity and characteristic flavors, you generally want to pick them within a certain ripeness window. The scale that measures sugar is known as Brix. The higher the Brix, the higher the potential alcohol in a wine. Here’s an equation for estimating, if you’re into that:
% potential alcohol by volume = 0.57 × Brix
Wine grapes are usually picked between about 20 and 25 Brix, with variation depending on things like weather conditions and the amount of acidity, which is the thing that has to balance with Brix in order to produce good wine. Finished wines usually end up between 12 and 15% alcohol by volume. All the sugar in the grape juice is consumed, and the wine finishes dry.
With a few exceptions we’ll discuss below, you don’t want what’s known as residual sugar—sugar left over after fermentation—in your wine, and certainly not by accident. Like food left out in your kitchen overnight, residual sugar can be food for unwanted bacteria and spoilage yeasts. Furthermore, if you picked your grapes at what you believed to be the perfect balance of acidity, sweetness, and flavors, residual sugar is going to throw that off.
Factors in perception of sweetness
So when people compare two wines that are technically dry and say one seems “dryer” or “sweeter” than another, what’s going on? One factor in perceived dryness is tannin, which is the substance from grape skins and stems that leaves a gritty sensation on your palate and stains your lips and teeth. Tannin has an astringent quality that can make a wine feel more dry. Wines high in tannin, like those made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo, can feel more “dry” than wines with less tannin such as Pinot Noir and Grenache despite having equally nonexistent residual sugar.
Another, more tricky, factor can be alcohol. Imagine getting your skin swabbed for a vaccine; alcohol has a drying, tingly effect on skin that can be perceived in high-alcohol wines. On the other hand, a boozy wine made with super-ripe fruit, like those from very warm climates, can feel “sweet” due to full-bodiedness.
A lack of acidity can make some warm-climate wines taste “flabby”—that is, soft, or lacking in structure, which can feel like sweetness. Likewise, a very acidic and snappy Sauvignon Blanc can feel more “dry” than a full-bodied, buttery Chardonnay.
Finally, wines that are made with carbonic maceration, a tactic used to increase fruitiness, can produce a bubblegum flavor that some people perceive as sweet.
Wines with actual sweetness
Many cheap wines are made with a touch of residual sugar to mask the taste of lower-quality fruit; for this reason, sweet wine gets a bit of a bad rap. (Don’t ever let anyone tell you wine doesn’t have a classist side.)
Leaving residual sugar in a wine can be beneficial when you have juice with searing acidity, as in the case with cool-climate Riesling. In this case, winemakers ferment the juice but stop the fermentation when it’s almost-but-not-quite complete, usually by cooling the juice way down or adding sulfite to kill the yeast. The result is a stable amount of residual sugar that softens out an otherwise tongue-scraping level of acid; you’ll see this with many German wines. You can also “back-sweeten,” which means adding sugar to the finished wine. But be aware: not all Riesling is dry! Because sweetness in wine can be adjusted from harvest to bottling, Riesling, like all wine, can be made as sweet or dry as the winemaker chooses.
Some dessert wines, like Port, are fermented and then fortified with a distilled spirit such as brandy. When the spirit mixes with wine before fermentation is complete, it kills the yeast, and residual sugar results. Others, such as ice wine, are made by leaving grapes on the vine through winter until they are raisined, then pressing them to get at the very sweet frozen nectar within. These wines have definite sweetness, and if you try one next to a dry table wine you will certainly notice the difference—in fact, it won’t make the dry wine taste very good by comparison!
So when you’re shopping for wine, it helps to know whether you’re looking for a wine that is truly sweet or dry or you’re looking for something with a perception of sweet or dryness. One of the biggest areas where the sweet/dry distinction is important is food pairing. Wine should be sweeter than food, so if you’re trying to pair wine with something like Girl Scout cookies, you need a wine with *actual* sweetness to balance it out.