Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Is it dry?

The motherload of all wine topics! The subject of dryness in a wine is the most misunderstood thing amongst customers so I thought I'd try to approach it in an intelligent way. First off let me state that whether a wine is dry or not is not indicative of it's quality! Okay, I had to get that off my chest, but it's true. Really, think about it, in a world where there are so many poorly made dry wines we as a staff wonder why, when recommending a wine to someone, do we often hear the question, "Is it dry?", as an inquiry to quality?


Let's look at this reasonably. There are two ways in which we can discuss dryness in wines. One is technical, the actual measure of residual sugar (RS) in the wine, with anything less than 10 grams per liter considered dry. The other is subjective, does the wine feel dry? Is there an impression of dryness or sweetness irregardless of what the RS actually is? I think this discussion is more important and something valid to think about is what people perceive as dryness or not when tasting wines.

The two things that come to mind for me are acidity and tannin. Acidity is tart and gives an impression of dryness, freshness, and crispness. My analogy is always lemonade so think about lemon juice with some sugar added to make it palatable, is it dry? A wine with super high acidity and RS under 10 grams/liter will always feel dry. Examples would be things like Muscadet, Chablis, Albarino, Rueda, and Sancerre. If there is a little more RS and the acidity is still high, like some chenin blancs and rieslings, the wine can still feel dry and crisp contrary to the technical number. Actually in that case you'd want a little RS because without it the wine would be overly acidic and austere. Some California wines like chardonnay and viognier, actually have high RS and low acidity which can feel dry to some people and sweet and flabby to others. Some dessert wines with very high RS have enough acidity to keep things balanced and not cloying. Go figure, this type of opinion as to dryness is like asking someone if the music is funky or not, it's well...subjective.

Tannins are the other issue here and when a customer asks for a red that's "not too dry", that's what I think they are referring to. Tannins in a wine are astringent and while giving structure to they also give an impression of dryness. Think of black tea with no sugar or milk, that lingering dryness is the tannin. Same effect in red wines, if a wine has substantive tannins we would use words like "chewy" and "muscular". There is some subjectivity here too as to what kind of wine you like or are in the mood for. On the other end of the spectrum, reds that are full-bodied, with low acid and low tannin, can feel smooth and silky to some folks and downright jammy to others. Another factor is that barrel aging in oak can also give an impression of sweetness, so even though a wine is "dry" it can be perceived as less dry with the creamy, toasty flavors of oak present.

I think the crux of the issue here is not to think that a "dry" wine is a good wine. There are well made and balanced wines all across the spectrum. Start with drinking quality wines in a style you like and branch out from there.

Cheers,
Michael

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