sommelier pouring white wine
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If you are any self-proclaimed lover of wine, it is likely that you have used the term “dry” to describe what you are looking for to a bartender, sommelier, or wine merchant. Somehow this term has become a default descriptor that is less about the wine you seek and more about wanting to indicate that you have refined taste. You’re no longer a teenage party-goer who likes cheap wine because it goes down easy and tastes like Kool Aid. You have a palate now, and wouldn’t want to be pegged as a know-nothing rube who prefers a wine that isn’t dry.

But what do we actually mean when we say a wine is dry? Wine is a liquid. By that definition it is necessarily wet. Doesn’t a racy Sancerre make you salivate? That doesn’t seem very dry. Won’t a robust, juicy malbec quench your thirst when you drink it alongside a burger? How is something like that considered dry? Time to discover what actually makes a wine dry, and with that, some additional wine descriptors to employ to help you hone in on key characteristics of wine you really like.

Sweet and Sour

glass of white wine on table


In my experience, a majority of the time when people use the word “dry,” they use it to mean “not sweet,” which definitionally, is correct. Fermentation is the process that converts sugar to alcohol, and the grape juice that goes into the vat is indeed sweet to begin. But here’s the thing: a majority of table wine is fermented to total dryness, meaning that there is little to no residual sugar left in your bottle at the end. By that metric, most wine is dry. Like, completely dry. Unless you’re on the dessert wine page, when you ask for something “dry” from a list of wines, you’ve only ruled out a very small fraction of the available selections when it comes to sugar content.

There are wines that are made in an intentionally sweet manner, mainly dessert wines, and also those that are made to have a little bit of residual sugar, sometimes called “off-dry.” This often applies to grapes that thrive in cold climates and have extremely high acidity such as riesling or chenin blanc. Some sugar is left behind during fermentation to balance what would otherwise be a borderline-astringent wine. But the key word here is balanced. If all you know of riesling is cheap, syrupy versions, get thee to a wine merchant, get thyself a bottle of quality German Mosel riesling, and let thy mind be blown by its bracing, sweet-vs-tart tension.

Scratch and Sniff

glass of red wine


If, when you say “dry,” you mean “that scratchy thing that happens on your tongue” when you drink certain red wines, now we’re talking tannins. Tannins are compounds in the skins of grapes that actually bond with your saliva, leaving you the impression of a dryer mouth. If you’ve ever drank oversteeped tea and were left feeling like your mouth was wearing a sweater, this is the same effect. Highly tannic wines include cabernet sauvignon, nebbiolo, Montepulciano, and syrah. Note that only red wines contain tannins—white wines are processed without contact with their skins. (Unless we’re talking orange wine, but that’s a topic for another day.) This drying, tannic quality makes these wines excellent pairings for rich foods like red meat, truffles, and dense cheese, because they help cut through the richness and create balance. If this is something you dig, try replacing the word “dry” with “tannic” when describing your taste to a wine professional.

Fruit Character

white wine grapes ready for harvest


Another factor in understanding the perception of dryness is to evaluate the fruit character or fruit flavors in a given wine. Wine grapes grow in a relatively narrow band of latitude both above and below the equator where conditions are just right to allow for moderate heat and a long ripening process. But even within that narrow band, there is a wide range of climate variation and soil type, and not all wines express themselves equally where the quality of fruit is concerned. Take, for example, a taut, austere sauvignon blanc from Sancerre in France, and a plush, tropical one from New Zealand. Same grape, completely different wine.

Hotter climates, especially in the New World (i.e., not Europe) can be perceived as “fruity” because of the ripeness level the grapes are able to achieve before fermentation. (They also end up a little higher in alcohol accordingly.) But fruity isn’t necessarily the opposite of dry, because fruity wines can be entirely without residual sugar. Argentinian malbec, California zinfandel, and Chilean merlot are all big-bodied, dry red wines that nonetheless have a certain juiciness to them. If you’re not a fan, call for a wine that has good “structure.” Structure aptly describes a precise balance between tannin, acidity, and alcohol where fruit takes a back seat. If you dig the juice, ask for “fruit-forward.” (And then maybe make yourself some summer sangria with any one of these.)

A Barrel of Buttered Popcorn

Finally, whether or not a wine interacts with oak during the winemaking process can add a distinct roundness to it. Most red wines see time in oak, though their robust flavors and tannins tend to overshadow the impact of the barrel. White wines that often see oak, however, such as chardonnay, can explode with rich, creamy, buttery flavors, almost to the point of buttered popcorn or suntan lotion. Again, this quality doesn’t make a wine not “dry,” this is just a particularly rich flavor profile that certain wines have. Alternately, wines that are aged in stainless steel or cement have a cleaner, linear mouthfeel, but this isn’t dryness, just not-oak-ness. Oaky chardonnays are awesome with buttery seafood dishes, like lobsters and crabs. “Rich” is a good word to use if you like the creamy whites, and “linear” or “mineral” for their opposites.

Now that you have a better understanding of what “dry” wine is, and a handful of new adjectives to consider, the best way to put this to application is get to drinking. Wine study is the best.

Here’s some homework: Try one new wine every month, or sign up for a custom wine subscription service.

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Related Video: How to Decant Wine, According to a Pro

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Pamela Vachon is a freelance writer based in Astoria, NY whose work has also appeared on CNET, Cheese Professor, Alcohol Professor, and Diced. She is also a certified sommelier, voiceover artist, and an avid lover of all things pickled or fermented.
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