If you work in the wine business, the phrase “dry red wine” is pretty straightforward. It’s any red wine that lacks discernible sweetness.
But if you buy, sell or serve wine, you’ll realize that everybody has their own definition of dry. Some people use the term when they’re looking for a gravelly, earthy, smoky wine sans a whiff of fruit, like certain old vine Zinfandels. Other times, they want a bottle of young, brawny Cabernet Sauvignon that sucks the moisture from their mouth.
“It’s definitely a tricky term,” says Anita Sahi, who co-owns Copia Vineyards in Paso Robles, California. “You have a consumer equating dry with a drying feeling in your mouth. In the wine world, that sensation is actually tannin or astringent.”
If you buy, sell or serve wine, you’ll realize that everybody has their own definition of dry.
Vintner Rosalind Manoogian says the notes of bright raspberry and plum in Fogcrest Vineyard’s Pinot Noir surprise some visitors to the estate. She explains that the flavors are an expression of the terroir in the Russian River Valley.
“If we do our job right, you should taste some fruit,” says Manoogian, even in a dry wine that doesn’t have any sugar.
Another problem is that “dry” can mean so many things in English. Dating back to the 14th century, the Old English and Germanic word dry has meant lacking moisture, devoid of humor, or boring and dull, according to Etymology Online.
By the 1620s, it also meant a place where you can’t get any alcohol. It wasn’t until around 1700 that dry also signified alcohol that doesn’t have any sweetness. Except if you’re talking about Champagnes and sparkling wines, where dry means sort of sweet. Is it any wonder people are confused?
The way out of that maze is taking a little time to ask questions patiently and explain what dry actually means in the world of red wine.
Kathy Gordon, the lead tasting room host at Three Sticks at the Adobe, has a foolproof way to define the concepts of dry, sweet and fruity in its Pinot Noirs.
“One of my analogies for explaining that is fruit tea,” she says. “Like with orange Pekoe tea, it’s fruity, but not sweet. Then if you add honey, it’s sweet and fruity. I like analogies with things they are familiar with. It helps cement that idea in their mind.”
Explaining wine’s journey from grapes to glass also helps, says Sahi. All wine starts as sweet grape juice. During fermentation, the yeast eats the sugar and converts it into alcohol. Once the yeast has eaten all the sugar, the fermentation is over, and the wine is considered dry.
Dry wine has benefits for winemakers, says Steve Millier, director of winemaking at Ironstone Vineyards.
“As a winemaker, we’re always looking for dry because that means it’s more stable,” he says. “We’re making sure that the wines ferment out to dryness. If a wine retains a little residual sweetness, it’s more susceptible to bacteria.”
The more that people know about how wine is made, where flavors come from and the shades of difference between dry, fruity and sweet, the more comfortable they’ll be talking about what they’re tasting and trying new styles.
“I really think wine should be a journey,” says Manoogian. “When you educate people that way, you empower them to not think that you have to have one answer.”