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Q: What’s a “Dry” Wine?

by David on March 29, 2008

Question from Andrew: Hello. I’m confused about the term “dry”. What does it mean?

Reply: Hi, Andrew! Thanks for writing! That term is misused so often that it’s no wonder everyone is confused. There’s a common perception that if you ask for a dry wine, you’re asking for a “good” one. Maybe it goes back to the days when a proliferation of truly-horrible sweet wine was sold, following repeal of prohibition.

Dry is the opposite of sweet. It has nothing to do with the quality or character of the wine. It’s meant to communicate the absence of sweetness.

Most of us can’t taste sugar in wine if it’s less than about .4%, so that’s the working benchmark. Wine is capable of fermenting much dryer than that, but it would be hard for most of us to tell the difference.

Here’s the way it works: Say the grapes are harvested at about 24% sugar. Fermentation is a natural chemical reaction in which yeast consumes the sugar, converting it to heat, carbon dioxide gas and alcohol (figure on a bout a 50-60% conversion rate of sugar to alcohol). To make a bone-dry wine, the winemaker lets the yeast use up all of the fermentable sugar, and comes out with a wine that’s about 13% alcohol. Generally speaking (the EU regulates this, the US doesn’t), if it’s .4% or less, we call it dry.

The most common ways to make sweet wine are:
1. Add sweet grape juice or “concentrate” to dry wine (adding sugar is illegal in California; in most regions that permit sugar additions it’s limited to the role of increasing the alcohol – not the sweetness).
2. Stop the fermentation, before the wine is dry, by chilling the wine and/or adding sulfur.
3. Stop the fermentation by adding alcohol (Port wine, for instance). The yeast can’t tolerate much over 16%.

But, there are sensory things that can trick your perception. For instance, alcohol has a sweet taste, so a dry wine that’s high in alcohol may seem to be sweet. Fruity flavors can trick your tongue into perceiving sugar that isn’t there. Sometimes our guests describe our Viognier as slightly sweet when it’s actually bone dry.  It’s just amazingly fruity and fragrant.

And then, we have to go and confuse the situation! How?

1. Wine that’s actually a little sweet is often referred to as “dry” – think Chardonnay under about 12 bucks.
2. Champagne terminology: Brut is supposed to mean dry (but some are dryer than others). “Extra Dry” is a little sweet! !$##*%!

So, that’s a long answer to a short question, but I hope it helps. Cheers!

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