Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Misusing the word 'Dry'

I was at a tasting last week of several Bordeaux reds and whites. At one table there were 2 sauvignon blanc blends. When I approached the table I was told that one wine was "drier" than the other, but that neither one was particularly sweet. Now I'm fairly certain that both of these wines were absent any residual sugar, making both of them completely "dry". What the host was trying to say was that one had more noticeable fruit than the other.

A dry wine by definition means that all the sugar was fermented into alcohol and that there is no residual sweetness left in the juice. A sweet wine by contrast had its fermentation stopped early either by force, or by the alcohol content reaching a level at which the yeast could no longer survive. This is the traditional use of the words dry and sweet to describe a wine.

Unfortunately there is a big misunderstanding or misconception that if a wine has a lot of upfront fruit characteristics that it is not dry, but rather sweet. This couldn't be further from the truth. The fruit flavors do not come from sugar, but rather from esters and acids and other compounds that are present in the grape. These esters and acids match those of apples, currants, peaches, blackberries, strawberries, and so on. That is why you are able to taste those fruits in your wine.

I've been thinking about this dry thing for a while now, and it has me wondering. Has the misuse of the term become so pervasive that those who use it are correct? I mean "irregardless" is in the dictionary. It has a definition as a nonstandard word, but its in there. If people continue to use the term sweet to refer to a "fruit bomb" will the meaning of the word change? Should it? Is that going too far? Should I have chewed out, or otherwise corrected, this member of the wine profession for perpetuating the problem?

I think what it really comes down to is the reactions the word sweet and dry elicit from wine drinkers. I've known many a wine drinker to tell me that they don't like dry wine, only to chug down a glass of Mondavi Cabernet. Interestingly enough I've heard the reverse from others. People who claim they don't like those "fruity wines" only to pick up the same glass, and remark at what a good wine it is.

If you are interested in finding out more about these wine traits here are some wines that display each of those characteristics.

Dry and Fruity: Ridge Three Valleys Zinfandel
Sweet: Urban Riesling


Arthur said...

"Dry" actually has a strict numerical definition but it is not equal to zero. Since it's virtually impossible to ferment out all the sugars in the must, "dry" *usually* means below 0.5 % sugar, with 3.0 % and up being sweet. One must note that actual ability to perceive sugar-related sweetness has been found (by empirical testing) to be in the range of 1%-2% sugar (I don't have the actual number on hand).

The use of "dryer" is appropriate insofar as it just means that one of the wines was closer to the 0.0 (or 0.5) mark than the other.

I agree with you that sweetness is separate from levels of fruit ripeness and extraction. Whenever I hear discussion of sweetness attributed to fruit extraction, however, my ears perk up. Fruit extraction, itself (and separate from RS) can induce a sweet impression (not the same as perception). However, this is a common fib wineries tell customers when the wine does not qualify to be called 'dry' because, it does have substantial residual sugar (which enhances fruitiness and tends to go hand in hand with lower acids and higher alcohol levels).

“Irregardless” may be in the dictionary, but I would argue that that speaks more of an acquiescence to a trend of lowered educational standards rather than the natural evolution of a language. I think you point to a valid phenomenon. Many of the issues that critics have with the state of today’s wine have a much stronger causative relationship with the consumer than with anything else.

Similar trends are seen in wine, and wine communication. Wine enjoyment requires some knowledge (which is very attainable and not as daunting as many seem to feel). I am purist and a traditionalist when it comes to wine and many other things. I would say that the misuse of the term ‘dry’ as well as the misunderstanding of a number of concepts of wine does not in any way validate the new (mis)use of the word or perpetuation of erroneous concepts and beliefts. I think we should try to learn and follow those established conventions rather than making up our (at times unfounded) ones "irregardless" what our initial impressions or beliefs may be.

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Anonymous said...

This was fascinating to read! And I mean that, not being sarcastic.