One of the strangest terms we use for wine is calling it ‘dry’ even though it is a liquid. In fact, online dictionaries define ‘dry’ as “free from moisture or liquid; not wet or moist.” So when wine is more than 85% water, what do we mean by the term dry? First, you need to understand grapes and how wine is made.
As grapes get riper they accumulate some of the major components of wine: sugar, flavour, aroma and tannin. The sugar comes in the form of sucrose, which is then converted to glucose and fructose (known as grape sugars) as the grape ripens. After harvest the grapes are pressed and the grape juice containing the grape sugars is liberated. Yeast is added that feeds on the grape sugars turning them into ethanol (alcohol), and creating carbon dioxide and heat in the process. The process continues until either the yeast runs out of grape sugars, or it is stopped through manual intervention. Any sugars left after the fermentation is referred to as residual sugar, which determines the sweetness of the wine.
Wine without any detectable residual sugar is referred too as ‘dry’.
The residual sugar in wine is measured in grams per litre (g/L). As most people are unable to detect sugars level less than 4 g/L, these wines are often considered to be ‘dry’. The scale goes up from there, right through to wines that are considered to be ‘sweet’ at over 120 g/L of residual sugar which is quite noticeable.
Red wines are generally fermented dry, that is there is no detectable residual sugar, however white wines (including sparkling wines) often have some level of residual sugar. With a lot of white wines you don’tnotice the sugar as it is often hidden by the acid in the wine. Acid has a funny way of masking sugar and making the wine appear ‘dry’ when it isn’t. The higher the level of acid the more sugar it can mask. This is why Champagne, which has very high acid, can have up to 12 g/L of unnoticeable residual sugar. In fact,that unnoticeable sugar just makes the wine feel like to has more body (that is it feels more substantial in the mouth). It’s a trick that wine makers often use with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
Ironically one of the best know ‘dry’ wines, Riesling, is often confused as a sweet wine. This is partially due to the popularity of Liebfraumilch, a German semi-sweet wine, better know in Australia by the brand name Blue Nun.
Many people who first tried wine started with Blue Nun or similar which was also their introduction to Riesling. Once they “graduated” to more serious wines they swore they would never try Riesling again equating it as a sweet wines. It’s a pity because South Australia, in particular the Clare Valley is famous globally for it’s ‘dry’ Rieslings, many with less than 2 g/L of residual sugar and with high acid. These types of dry acidic Rieslings make a great companion with oily fish dishes like King George Whiting, (common in South Australia), as the acid cuts through the oil.
If you are looking for a very reasonably priced but commonly available example of Clare Valley Riesling then check out Jim Barry Riesling and chill it in the fridge before drinking. Yummy.
In my next article I’ll discuss why wines are called ‘sweet’, how they’re made, and give you some cool examples to try. If you love my wine advice, you will love Wine Matchmaker’s events where I share lots of interesting and practical wine education. Head over to our events page for more information. I am also happy to tailor corporate events to you needs and budget, whether it be entertaining clients or rewarding staff with amazing bespoke experiences. Feel free to reach out to me here for an initial discussion.