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How To Speak Wine: What "Dry" And "Sweet" Actually Mean

You don’t have to be a wine expert to be a wine lover. To be a wine lover, however, you do have to find wines that you love. That can be hard (even if the rejects still go down easy). Wines’ styles differ as widely as our preferences. And even our own tastes are subject to change based on time, weather, what we’re eating, phases of the moon (seriously, biodynamic agriculture experts believe that wine is best enjoyed on certain days in the lunar cycle) ...we’re a fickle bunch!

Given all of this variance, the best we can do is to become confident and conversant enough to order and buy wines that we consistently like (waxing or waning gibbous aside). But don’t worry, we’re not suggesting memorizing highfalutin jargon like “malolactic fermentation” or esoteric (and often gross) descriptors like “barnyard,” “cat pee” or “stewed prunes.” Mmm.

We’re just interested in the objective components that every wine has. Knowing what you like is one thing – communicating what you like is another.

Dry and Sweet

A wine is dry when the yeasts responsible for fermentation have converted all of the grapes’ sugars into alcohol. In red wines, the presence of tannin (see below) is often mistaken for dryness. The astringent sensation of tannin (and sometimes oak) does indeed dry out the mouth, but the presence of tannin does not make a wine dry; rather, dry simply means the absence of sweetness.

A wine is sweet when fermentation has been intentionally stopped before all of its grapes’ sugars have been converted into alcohol. The earlier fermentation is halted, the sweeter the wine. Our tongues taste sugar on their tips. A wine’s label may indicate a measure of residual sugar or it may not. One clue if it doesn’t is to look at the Alcohol By Volume (ABV). Typically, wines below 10% alcohol have some sweetness.

Now, it’s common to perceive a wine’s fruit as the presence of sugar. Our brain thinks of fruit as sweet, so when we taste a dry, but fruity wine, we think, “mmm or eww, that’s sweet” even when there is no sugar left behind. We detect fruit in the middle of our tongue. Think of the difference between a cup of plain tea and a cup of lemon tea. You’ve put no honey or sugar in either (and none is registered on the tip of your tongue), yet the lemon tea may taste sweeter.   

Ready for white wine now? This Chardonnay is a dry wine. This Vermentino is a dry but fruity wine. This Gewurztraminer is a lightly sweet wine.

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