How many times have you asked your server or bartender for a dry red wine? Why did you ask for a dry red? Because you like the tannic effect a big cabernet has on your tongue? Because it tastes oaky? What does dry even mean? The fact is, this is easily one of the most widely used and misused wine terms out there.
On a given day it feels like half of my job as a sommelier is deciphering what a guest means when they use the word dry. Some say they want a dry red, but 2 minutes and 4 taste tests later we find what they really like are jammy blends! Jammy blends are not exactly a big, dry wine.
When asking for a dry red wine, most people are just doing their best to describe that dried-out feeling on the tongue wine gives us while sipping it, and understandably so, it seems correct. However, tannins are what actually give us that feeling, the same you get from over-steeped black tea, they have nothing to do with the dryness level of a wine.
What does dry really mean?
The term dry, when referring to wine, simply means no sugar. To put a number on it, we generally consider any red wine with 10 g/l (grams per liter) or less of residual sugar to be dry in style, most fall in the 2-5 g/l range. Conversely, off-dry means a little sweetness, typically in the 10-15 g/l range of residual sugar. When someone correctly asks for a dry red wine they are asking for a wine with a very low residual sugar content, something that is not sweet at all.
Keep in mind though, a dry wine can still have a fruit forward presence and low tannins, making it a fruit-forward wine, it’s just not sweet. Understanding fruitiness vs. sweetness can be difficult at first, nature gives us some good examples though. A cup of blackberries contains about 7g of sugar, they tastes super fruity, but only have half the sugar of blueberries (14.7g per cup), which in turn have about half the sugar of table grapes (23.4g per cup). They all taste fruity, but the sweetness levels are very different.
So, why are some wines sweet and others not?
An easy way to look at this is to understand how wine is made in the first place. The simple form (and I mean very simple) looks like this:
grape juice + yeast + time = wine.
Grape juice contains sugar, yeast converts sugar into alcohol, proper time is given for the conversion process, wine is the end result. Fermentation simply means, as sugar levels go down, alcohol levels go up. Adjusting those levels to make a particular wine style is true art, fluctuation in any of these three components will affect the final product. Obviously there’s a bunch of other science going on there, but we’re just keeping things simple for now.
So, let’s say we’re making two different wines simultaneously in two different tanks with the same grapes. We fill each tank with the same grape juice, we add the yeast to both tanks, now we sit back and watch the fun begin. After some time we check back and see both tanks are at about 13% abv (alcohol by volume) with a little bit of sugar still available for the yeast to feast on. Let’s pause here…
If we planned on making one of the wines in a completely dry style we would continue to let the yeast do its job and ferment more sugar out of the wine. But, we also want a wine in an off-dry style, now would be the perfect time to stop fermentation. There’s still a bit of natural sweetness left in the wine, maybe 15 g/l of sugar, leaving it delightful to anyone who likes a sweeter, jammier styled red.
If you have noticed so far in this process, I haven’t referred once to tannin, oak, or fruit; none of those have to do with the dryness level of a wine, it’s all sugar content. Tannins are a natural component found in the skins and seeds of a grape, there’s also some tannins that come from new oak barrels, these lead to a dried out feeling you get on the finish of a good red wine. Alternatively, wines that have that sweeter, cola type sweetness on the end are higher in residual sugar, what we would call off-dry in style.
Order your wine with confidence!
So, if you are new to the world of red wines and don’t like that dried out feeling in the finish, ask for a wine with low tannins. Or, if you know you love that bold, high tannic feeling in the finish, go ahead and ask for that cabernet! But keep dry out of your vocabulary, unless sugar is your main concern.
More importantly, discuss and educate your friends and family on this. Because let’s be honest, what we all really want is for our know-it-all friends to stop saying how much they love dry reds, as they swirl and slurp their Apothic Red (16 g/l residual sugar).