What is a dry wine?
Pinot Grigio. Brut. Cabernet Sauvignon. If you love dry wine, then these names probably sound familiar. Many casual wine drinkers are under the impression that a dry wine can be distinguished by the unmistakable feeling of the tongue turning dry upon tasting, but wine connoisseurs know that dry wine is not just a feeling — it’s a flavor.
A dry wine is defined by a lack of sugar. During fermentation, yeast works to turn any sugars in wines from grapes into alcohol. A dry wine will have gone through the fermentation process farther and will thus contain less sugar, resulting in the dry flavor. Contrary to what you may think, a sugarless, dry wine does not mean a flavorless wine. Dry qualities can pair with several other qualities of wine to create complexity in the palate.
A Dry Tongue Comes From Tannins
The dry feeling that often confuses the average wine drinker can be explained by tannins, which bring bitter flavors and astringent qualities along with a dry feeling on the tongue. Tannins are polyphenols. For wine, tannins typically come from grape seeds, skins and stems. The longer the juice sits with these parts of the grape during the fermentation process, the more tannic the wine will become.
The word tannin comes from the German word tanna, which translates to oak. The aging process that takes place in wooden casks, known as oaking, can also transfers tannins to the wine. Aside from grapes and wood, tannins can also be found in other parts of plants, like leaves, buds and other organic matter.
Red wine fanatics can safely be deemed as fans of tannic wine because the two go hand-in-hand. Grape skins are where red wines get their color, which, as previously mentioned, impacts the flavor of the wine to be more tannic. Tannins are packed with antioxidants, contributing to the reputation of red wine being the healthier option when up against its white wine counterpart.
However, tannins do come with a potential downside. Polyphenols like tannins along with certain foods, food additives, alcohol, caffeine, stress, sensory stimuli, disruptions in sleep-wake patterns, hormonal changes, and many other things can trigger migrains for sufferers of headaches. The mechanism that triggers this is not clearly understood but scientist believe that through metabolizing polyphenols the brain can be triggered to produce an increase of the neurotransmitter serotonin that is more than usual. Excess amounts of serotonin can cause headaches, particularly for those who are affected by migraines.
Low Residual Sugar Is The Distinguisher Of A Dry Wine
Wine is made sweet by the percentage of residual sugar, measured in grams per liter, left in the bottle. A wine must be lower than 1.0% sweetness or made up of less than 10 grams per liter (g/L) of residual sugar to be classified as dry. To achieve their preferred concentration of sugar, a winemaker can stop the fermentation process by quickly chilling the wine and slowing the fermentation process to nearly a halt, adding natural sulfur solutions that slow or stop fermentation, or even flash pasteurization though this is much less common. In order to produce a dry wine, winemakers will simply allow fermentation to happen almost completely so that sugar is nearly eliminated.
Sugar-conscious drinkers might already be asking the question. Do dry wines have less calories than sweet wines? Yes, dry wines do have less calories from sugar than sweet wines, but there are other factors that play into the nutritional makeup of a wine that make answering this question more complicated. On top of sugar, wine contains alcohol, which contains seven calories per gram, carries more calories than sugar, which contains close to only four calories per gram.
Taking Away Sugar Creates A High Alcohol By Volume
Because dry wines ferment longer, the wine loses sugar and gains alcohol. On average, the more dry the wine, the higher the alcohol by volume (ABV). The ABV of wine starts around a minimum of 5.0% and usually caps at about 20.0%. A casual wine drinker is unable to distinguish below 1.5% dryness, but trained wine testers pride themselves in being able to detect the residual sugar in a glass of wine within 0.2%.
The average sweet wine has an ABV of under 10%, while the average dry wine tends to be 11% and over, but it is important not to overgeneralize. Sweet wine can be more alcoholic than the average dry wine, think port or fortified wines. Adding beet, corn or cane sugar to wine before fermentation, a process called chaptalization, is practiced in cooler climates, where grapes are often not able to ripen enough to produce the minimum alcohol level.
Chaptalization is a fairly common practice throughout the U.S. but is monitored by the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to ensure that the final ABV is less than 24%. However, state laws may differ and require wineries to produce an ABV that is even lower. California-made wines are safe from any added sugar at all, given that chaptalization is illegal in the state.
Qualities Of Dry Wine
While the difference between dry and tannic properties of wine are quite distinct, do not assume that means dry qualities and tannic flavors are mutually exclusive. Wines can be dry and tannic. Take Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. It is a famously tannic wine that falls on a dryness scale near bone-dry with almost no residual sugar left.
Dry wine can also have several nuanced qualities and can almost taste sweet when paired correctly. Low acidity paired with fruity notes can create a sweet illusion for dry wine drinkers craving a touch of sweet in their glass. Because the sense of smell and taste are intertwined, oaked wine can trick the senses into believing that aromas of caramel and vanilla hold flavor for the taste buds to enjoy.
A dry wine with an ABV of over the average of 12% can enhance flavor through its warming qualities it brings to the throat and mouth between each sip. Unflavored vodka still has a taste, right? Although, it is important to balance the strong taste of alcohol with other elements of the wine. Additionally many professional tasters note that alcohol can provide a perceived sweetness, a key distinction between the scientific measurement of sugar, and the consumers perception of sweetness.
To reiterate, a lack of residual sugar is the only factor that contributes to a dry wine. Although tannins and ABV can change the flavor profile, neither have an impact on the dryness. With this newfound knowledge, you can describe your favorite dry and tannic wines as accurately as a wine connoisseur. Cheers!