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What makes a wine dry?

There are a somewhat small range of primary descriptors used by those in the wine industry which subsequently become the go to guidelines for a broad range of consumers. Whether a wine is dry or not is amongst the most popular characteristic used to judge whether one does or does not favour a wine. But what does it really mean? What makes a dry wine?

Given that most of my friends, family and colleagues are now well aware of my passion (some would call it obsession) for wine I have inadvertently become the individual at which all wine questions and recommendations are aimed at (which is not something I mind at all) A recent request for recommendation from a colleague got me thinking; the colleague asked me for both a white, and red, recommendation with the conditions being that they only liked dry wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

When I delved a little deeper in to what this colleague did and did not like it became evident that their understanding of what constitutes a dry wine was being somewhat conflated/confused with various other fundamental characteristics of wine. For example, they did not like US Chardonnay or Zinfandel as they considered both to be sweet in flavour.

This chance happening had inadvertently given me the perfect topic upon which to create a helpful blog post so it seemed almost fate-like that the focus of our most recent wine club meeting (run by my good friend Andrij at Majestic Uttoxeter) should be focused on exactly what makes a wine dry and what can influence both the olfactory and gustatory perception of wine. In this post I am going to discuss not only what makes a wine dry but also what can impact the perception of dryness, I am going make reference to examples used during the wine club to give context to this information and hopefully provide some direction as to what to avoid, or look for, depending on your preference for ‘dryness’

Fundamentally whether or not a wine is considered dry or not is a result of the wines residual sugar level. As discussed in previous posts during the ripening stage acids are metabolised and sugars produced, however even after this process is complete acids remain; so why aren’t all wines acidic? The answer is residual sugar. A great example of how this relationship is perceived can be found in Coca Cola. The pH of Coca Cola is 2.3, just a notch less acidic than a lemon, but we do not perceive the two as equally acidic. This is because humans are hardwired to be more sensitive to the taste of sugar, as such it masks our perception of acidity; nothing fancy, nothing complicated, one just masks the other. So how can a winemaker alter the residual, and overall, sugar level in their wine?

Let’s begin with Champagne; to contextualise this example we tasted Laurent Perrier Extra Brut alongside Nyetimber Demi-Sec. Winemakers working with Champagne are able to add what is referred to as a dosage (some form of sweetness added to a Champagne to add sweetness) The size of the dosage added by the winemaker will not only affect how the dryness of the Champagne is perceived by the drinker but also how the wine tastes (the sugar couples with other compounds and accentuates particular flavours) So if you like dry Champagne, opposed to sweet, you will want to head for anything labelled Brut, Extra Brut or Brut Zero. If you prefer a sweeter, often more rich, Champagne the look for anything labelled Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec or Doux.

Moving on to still white wines there are a number of viticultural and winemaking practises which can alter both the residual sugar level and perception of dryness. Using the clubs comparison of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Californian Chardonnay the use of both oak and malolactic fermentation (MLF) has altered the perception of dryness (arising somewhat from crisp acidity) in the Chardonnay. This is due to both the increased levels of lactic acid (a much softer acid than tartaric) lent to the wine by MLF and also the sweet vanilla flavours imparted by the oak which can mask the perception of acidity (if you don’t believe me, hold your nose, take a sip and watch that acidity shine) If your preference is dry, crispy white wine you will want to avoid heavily oaked wine like Chassagne Montrachet and US Chardonnay. Taking Chardonnay as an example look for great examples of non-oaked dry Chardonnay from Chile, Chablis, Oregon and the Langhe.

Sticking with still white wine but shifting to Riesling (particularly Germany where sweet Riesling is more prominent) the level of sweetness is used as a fundamental style descriptor, even having its own labelling lexicon. There are a few vineyard practises which affect the sweetness of German Riesling and these include late harvesting (to maximise ripeness) and encouraging the development of Botrytis. Again, if your preference is dry white wine look for German Riesling labelled Trocken and avoid Auslese and Spatlese or head toward the new world where Riesling is generally dry.

Moving on to red wine, this is where I believe the majority of ‘everyday’ consumers conflate ‘dryness’ with other primary characteristics of wine. The reason I believe this is due to the fact that the vast majority of wines (with a few exceptions to be discussed) have extremely low residual sugar and as such are fundamentally dry.

The primary characteristic affecting ‘dryness’ in red wine are tannins (I will discuss exactly what tannins are in a future post) The mechanism through which tannins dry the mouth is a complex one but in short it is believed that they bind to molecules and affect your ability to produce saliva. Whilst the overall tannic style of a grape is fundamentally linked to variety (some varieties are highly tannic some are not) there are winemaking practises which can affect a finished wines tannins such as use of new oak and cold soak or extended maceration.

To contextualise these differences we tasted a heavily oaked US Zinfandel and a classic tannic Barolo, the impact of tannins upon the perception of dryness is clearly evident between the two. If you like ‘dry’ red wines look for Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon (less oaked expressions) and Petit Verdot. In contrast if you prefer a less dry tasting wine look for Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Barbera where the wines are either less tannic or more heavily oaked.

Thank you to Andrij at Majestic Uttoxeter for an extremely insightful evening that inspired this post.

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