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