Dry wines are dry because they have a lack of sugar, but a taste cannot be described by a lack of flavor. If a dry wine does not taste like sugar, then what does it taste like? You may have preconceived notions about dry wine and its flavors. However, sugar is not a necessary factor in a delicious wine. Fans of dry wine already know this to be true. The flavor palate of wine can be broken down into five distinct categories: sweetness, alcohol, acidity, tannins and body.
Unsurprisingly, there is not much to say about the sweetness of a dry wine because, well, dry wines are not sweet. Sweetness comes from sugar, and the level of sugar a dry wine can have is fixed. To be considered dry, a wine must have less than 10 grams of residual sugar per liter — even a small amount over is considered off-dry. It is very important to remember that dryness, as a descriptor, is only used to mean a lack of sugar; a lack of sugar does not mean a lack of flavor or a bitter taste.
Although a dry wine is not sweetened from sugar, it can seem sweet in alternative ways. Ever notice that when you catch a cold and have a stuffy nose, you lose a good sense of taste? That is because smell and taste work together. Any aroma can trick the senses into believing that the flowery, fruity or chocolaty smell in your favorite dry wine is mistaken by the tastebuds. Despite being widely known for boldness and unique notes, red wines often contain low levels of sugar.
Because dry wine has little to no sugar in its final product, it is natural to assume that dry wine has high alcohol levels. While that may be true in a lot of cases, that does not make it so for all. In the case of grapes containing very little sugar to begin with, fermentation converts all sugar to alcohol and the result is a dry wine with low alcohol levels. For those watching calorie intake, dry wine with low alcohol levels are typically those with the lowest count.
When alcohol is a prominent quality in a wine, it might taste warm or spicy and can be perceived as sweetness. However, you might come up with your own word for a strong taste of alcohol in wine. The taste of alcohol you experience is unique to you (or your family). Certain genes turn bitter receptors on and off, which changes the taste and perception of alcohol in an individual.
All wine is acidic to some degree. From the most acidic at 0 to the most basic at 14, all wine scores to be about three on the pH scale, which is pretty acidic in comparison to water, which sits at a neutral seven. On a pH scale, the level of acidity tells us how intense any combination of tartaric acid, malic acid and citric acid are in a wine. A pH scale does not account for acidity tasting balanced by sweetness or being amplified by tannins. Researching technical data will explain the total acidity of a particular wine. Total acidity directly addresses how different combinations of wine qualities affect the flavor.
If you like sour wine, you like wine with high acidity. There are quite a few words wine connoisseurs use to describe acidity in wine: crisp, tart, astringent. Acidity, only complemented by a chilled bottle, is what makes wine refreshing. How do these qualities play into a dry wine? To a degree, dryness seems to amplify acidity. The trocken variety of Riesling is often described as acidic. Without any sweetness to balance it, acidity is more noticeable in the palate.
Tannin is a word that has a taste in itself. Mistakenly described as dryness in wine, tannins are what causes bitterness in wine. Tannins are the polyphenols responsible for drying out the tongue with each sip. With its grippy qualities, tannins cling to the sides of the mouth and linger even after swallowing. The urge to chew away the feeling is not uncommon.
Tannins and acidity serve similar functions. Both acidity and tannins help to keep a wine from spoiling. Similar to acidity, tannins are astringent. Working together to enhance the effect of one another, tannins and acidity give wine a tart flavor that are more obvious in the absence of sugar. Tannins are known as the backbone of red wine and add complexity of the body. The high tannins in Merlot give the wine a chocolaty aftertaste and a smooth texture it is so famous for.
Flavor is not the only aspect of wine. Texture and weight define the body. Light-bodied wine can be called delicate, short or weak. Full-bodied wine can be called dense, powerful or opulent. While light-bodied wine and full-bodied wine are the reverse of one another, the descriptors for medium-bodied wines in between are not as simple because they do not quite fall on a perfect scale.
It is quite difficult to explain the body of wine. Textures do not fall on a binary scale. Medium-bodied wine can be called polished, complex, angular or tight. Each one has its unique experience that is more than a place between light and heavy. The body of a wine is dependent on a combination of several qualities: the variety of grape, alcohol level, age of the wine and how the wine is made. Types of dry wine can embody any one of these descriptors.
Even still, dryness is confused with tannic and bland wine. Since both wines are already made dry, ordering a dry Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon is understood by the waiter to mean that you are looking for a wine with less fruity notes. People will continue to mix up terminology and find new ways to do it. How can you blame them? Wine descriptors are complex. Dry wine is complex. The qualities of wine interact and work together to make up a distinct experience individual to the wine.