Wine Talk

Snooth User: Etty Lewensztain

Demystifying the Wine Term "Dry"

Posted by Etty Lewensztain, Jul 19, 2012.

The wine term "dry" seems to have been misconstrued from its technical scientific definition as being the opposite of sweet, meaning there is no perceptible residual sugar in the wine. More often than not, I hear wine drinkers describe a wine with aggressive tannins as being dry, without knowing that dryness actually refers to the lack of sweetness, not the drying effect that tannins can have on your inner cheeks and gums. I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts on what a "dry" wine means to them.


Reply by jtryka, Jul 19, 2012.

I think I agree with your definition, though the confusion may come in that many dry reds are also quite tannic, particularly when young.  There is often similar confusion between sweet and the level of fruit in the wine, as many wines can have lovely fruit flavors, but are not sweet (for some real drama, try tackling what "jammy" means!).  This may also depend on where you originally tried/learned about dry wines, and for me that was the wonderful dry Bordeaux I learned to love in Paris in the mid-1990s, these were very dry, with quite subdued tannins, and at that time someone told me the "dryest" wine left you feeling as though you had not tasted anything.  I think I differ from that view after nearly 20 years of wine drinking, but I'd be interested in others' thoughts.

Reply by outthere, Jul 19, 2012.

I little education goes a long way. Lots of people don't know the difference between tannins and dryness, spice and heat, oak chips and butter, extraction and jamminess. It's not really a big deal unless they start talking about it like they understand when they don't. Then it can end up being confusing. Asking questions is the way to learn.

The only dumb question is the one not asked, right?

Dryness and flavor do not go hand in hand. There are winemakers who use RS as a means of enriching flavor on wines that aren't very well made but that's a discussion for another day. In general though, the average American prefers off dry, spoofed wines to dry wines. Look at the top sellers like Ménage à Trois and Apothic Winemakers Blend for example. Huge sellers with little redeeming quality as well made wines.

Reply by shsim, Jul 20, 2012.

Hmm I agree with your definition Etty. And you are right, people often associate fruity with sweet. I always thought jammy means exactly what jam is, cooked fruits! They certainly have a different taste from the fruit itself. 

yea, asking questions is the way to go. Thats how i am learning, and i still dont know plenty. It just sucks when some snob comes and puts you down. oh well. I am glad Snooth is not like that. 

Reply by Craig Bilodeau, Jul 20, 2012.

When you guys start talking about "dry" as being "the lack of sweetness, not the drying effect that tannins can have on your inner cheeks and gums", I realize just how much I do not know.  Then again, reading most of the posts on this forum do that as well.  :-/

I went to a Belgium beer tasting event yesterday (hopefully my admittance of this does not render me a persona non gratis amongst the regulars on this forum  ;-), and we tasted beers that lacked sweetness but that I would definitely not classify as "dry".  Does the term "dry" as a lack of sweetness only apply to wine, or does the overpowering presence of hops masking the sweetness in a beer as strong tannins can sometimes mask the sweetness of a red wine?

Reply by Etty Lewensztain, Jul 20, 2012.

Hang in there Craig! You just learned something new, so focus on that, not on what you don't know :) First of all, the most serious wine experts I know are secret beer fanatics, so no need to have any shame there. I personally am a huge beer lover. That's a very good question. I've never heard a beer described as dry, but I imagine the term would transfer pretty fluidly. I tend to look at hops as a parallel to acidity in wine as opposed to tannins. Both hops and acidity attribute a refreshing bitterness or rather sourness that also attributes structure.

Reply by EMark, Jul 20, 2012.

What about all these nomenclatures that you see on (mostly domestic) sparkling wines:

  1. Sec
  2. Demi-Sec
  3. Dry
  4. Extra Dry
  5. Brut
  6. Natural

Here is what I think they mean:

  1. Sec -- Sweet
  2. Demi-Sec -- Sweet
  3. Dry -- Sweet
  4. Extra Dry -- Sweet
  5. Brut -- Sweet
  6. Natural -- Maybe not so sweet


Reply by Richard Foxall, Jul 20, 2012.

CB, my daughter said I need to drink more beer.  Spending a few weeks outside the US reminded me of how much I can enjoy beer.  (That and a trip to Lanesplitter Pizza down the street will do the trick.) Beers can be dry if they are less malty and more hoppy.

Wines can give the impression of sweetness without RS when they have a stronger balance of fruit to tannins.  Over time, tannins generally persist while fruit fades, but the RS hasn't changed appreciably. Still, they taste less sweet and more dry. 

The bigger issue is whether the acids and sweetness balance each other. I generally don't like port-styled wines, but I recently had a dessert wine from Mauritson that was so zingy with acid that it wasn't at all cloying.  Similarly, GdP served a Tokai at last October's event that was 2% ABV or so, and obviously full of sugar, but was unlike any sweet wine I had had because Furmint (the main grape) has such high acid that dry versions are often undrinkable. (I have had some good ones, but you better like austere whites.) On the other hand, I'm not sold that all Auslese Rieslings have the balance necessary to avoid that sticking-in-the-back-of-the-throat quality that I don't like.

Reply by GregT, Jul 21, 2012.

emark - hilarious!

Craig - yeah, dry can apply to beer too. That's all about simple and complex carbohydrates, and the simple ones are what we call sugars, so fewer of them mean "drier" beer, although it's also become a marketing term as well as a kind of Asian beer, so the nomenclature there is really confusing to me.

Anyhow, I don't think your initial assumption is entirely wrong. Nobody had a definitive etmology of the term and it's very likely that the term was first used as you suggest - to describe the astringency of the wine.  Remember that back in the day, much, and probably most, red wine was for peasants. It was rough, tannic, alcoholic, and not all that refined. The elegant wines were more often the whites and of those, the revered ones would have been the sweets, since they'd last longer and who cared if they were oxidized anyway and sugar was not easily come by. In today's world of cheap corn syrup that's hard to imagine, but for much of human history, honey was the sweetener they knew.

Tannins bind to the proteins in your saliva and literally make your mouth feel dry, so describing an astringent wine as dry isn't illogical. That may or may not have been the reason to call non-sweet wines "dry".  Nobody can really be certain and I haven't seen anything definitive one way or another.

Fox - that particular wine Greg served was a little different.  You're right - it was unlike any other sweet wine, but not because of the variety.  It really wouldn't have mattered if it were Furmint or another grape - it was largely free-run juice from the dried grapes and nobody anywhere bottles that because they don't pick the grapes like they do in Tokaj. I was a little skeptical about that wine because there's so much of it but I talked to the winemaker who "made" it and he assured me that it was legit. You can't do it today because the rules have changed.

I do agree with you about Furmint in general however - it can be pretty austere.  Making dry Furmint and putting it on the market as such is a relatively recent phenomenon however, and they're still getting it right.

Reply by JonDerry, Jul 22, 2012.

Really interesting talk here...I'd agree that dry wines should feel dry, and if tannins are what does the trick, why not call it dry? It does seem like the term is a little over-used but with wines and politics there seem to be two dominating categories. Having said, that should democrats be associated with sweet wines and republican's dry? Eh, doesn't work so well.

Naming the in between can be challenging in the wine world, sometimes they are herbacious and split the difference altogether. Or is that dry because there isn't much or any sugar?

Reply by Craig Bilodeau, Jul 24, 2012.

As part of the beer tasting event, we tried a fruit lambic (apple, actually).  It was much closer to a cross between cider and a champagne than a beer, and was definitely on the sweet side.

Reply by ps, Aug 22, 2012.

I re-read this post after reading the article on the 5 wine components.  I still have trouble with defining dry vs. sweet especially for red wines.  You often know sweet when you taste it, but is anything not sweet dry?  Could you name some dry reds vs. sweet reds?  Could you have a merlot that is dry and one that is sweet or are all red wines within a genre the same in terms of dry vs. sweet?

Reply by bastropwineguy, Aug 22, 2012.


Yes, you can have a Merlot  that is made sweet (though most are not). It is often up to the winemaker to decide whether or not to stop fermentation before all the sugars are converted to alcohol. In some cases it is a vineyard management decision: the grapes used are picked very late, and are so ripe and full of sugar that the increasing alcohol level naturally kills off the yeast before it can convert it all to sugar. Think about some Zins that are almost 16% alcohol and still taste sweet and jammy. (Boy, am I glad THAT fad seems to have largely passed!)

Reply by GregT, Aug 22, 2012.

PS - I have no idea what the five flavor components are, but here are some EU definitions:

Residual Sugar Labelling Indicators for Still Wine

Dry:   Maximum of 4g/l, or 9g/l where the total acidity content is not more than 2 g/l below the residual sugar content.

Medium Dry:   The residual sugar content must exceed the maximum for "Dry" but not exceed 12g/l, or 18g/l where the total acidity content is not more than 10g/l below the residual sugar content.

Medium or Medium Sweet:  The residual sugar content must exceed the maximum for "Medium Dry" but not exceed 45g/l.

Sweet: At least 45g/l.

Too much to go into here, but those are things you can measure and they may or may not correlate to what you actually experience in your mouth.  The short answer to your question is yes, you can make Merlot sweet or dry, although sweet Merlot is pretty rare indeed. 

However, the sweetness you actually perceive is going to be affected by the acidity level (more acid will make it seem less sweet, regardless of the measured amount of sugar) and it's also going to be affected by the "fruitiness" factor.

In other words, a really fruity wine, perhaps having been through carbonic maceration, for example, can seem kind of "sweet", even tho it may be quite dry. Partly that's because in our mind, we associate ripe fruit with a slight sweetness, so I've asked winemakers in the past if there is some residual sugar (RS) and they say no, it's just the ripeness of the fruit.

A good way for you to experience this yourself is to go get some Riesling. It's the one grape that the Germans actually make in varying sweetness levels.  They rank the wine by the sugar at harvest. So something that says "Spatlese" will have riper grapes than something that says "Kabinett".  However, then they will make the wine "Trocken", which means "dry" in German, or "Halb-Troken", which is literally "half dry" or slightly sweet.  And the sweetness levels can go through the roof if you keep looking, but just looking at those types will give you a good experience.  The grape is fairly acidic, so if you ask your wine seller for an exremely dry Riesling with no residual sugar, and then you ask for one with some sweetness, you can see the difference, even though they may both seem fruity and kind of sweet.

Don't get something from Alsace - stick with Germany for this experience, or maybe Australia for a really dry Riesling.  You can get Columbia Crest Riesling or Chateau St Michelle - the basic Riesling and then look for a late harvest or something and you'll see the dif again.

And by the way, even though they call it "dry", if you have a wine with like 1 g/L residual sugar and another with like 3, the latter might seem a lot "sweeter" to you, even though it's technically "dry", the above caveats aside.


Reply by ps, Aug 23, 2012.

Thanks Bastropwineguy and GregT.  The Merlots I have tasted seemed neither sweet nor dry.  I haven't tasted a sweet one or at least haven't noticed it.  

The EU definition above makes it clear - it is something measurable and not subjective which was something I was starting to wonder.

With Rieslings it is much clearer - I have tasted a variety of them.  I recently tried a dry moscato which I didn't realize existed and it was nice.  It was floral but not sweet.

The only sweet red I know is the Lambrusco which I didn't particularly like.  

Reply by charlesr15, Sep 10, 2012.

To me you have to do dry by whites, reds and sparkling wines. A dry white is usually crisp with a fair amount of acidity. Reds are usually heavy on the tannins and have an earthy taste. When you get to sparkling or champagnes, then brut or extra brut will give you less fruity taste , but more mineral taste.It's all in one's taster and what they like, but I have always liked "dry" for sparkling and more rounded or smooth wines for whites. Red's to me depend on the type and the region on the world you are drinking.

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