Behind the paradoxical wine lingo we’ve swallowed forever.
“Anything as long as it’s dry” has been the American wine drinker’s mantra for decades. Scolded by a generation of wine critics who pushed us toward “real” wines made in classic styles, we’ve been conditioned to associate “dry” with “good” and “sweet” with “rotgut.” These days, the pendulum is swinging back a bit, as a more educated class of wine consumers is learning about the joys of off-dry, sweet, and semisweet wines, like Riesling and sherry.
But what does the term “dry” really mean? All wine starts as grape juice, which is full of natural sugars. Those sugars are the food for yeasts and other microbes to convert into alcohol. Eventually, the alcohol level rises to a point where the yeast can’t survive and the fermentation stops. In a “dry” wine, virtually all the sugar in the original grape juice has been converted to alcohol. Off-dry, semisweet, and sweet wines contain progressively higher amounts of residual sugar. But don’t confuse dry wine with zero sweetness, or sweet wines with cloying syrup.
Residual sugar is only one part of a wine’s composition that influences our perception of sweetness. One dry wine may taste sweeter than an equally low-sugar bottle if it has less acid or tannins. Alcohol content also plays a role in our perception of sweetness. And as it turns out, most Americans, raised on high-sugar diets, don’t actually prefer the driest-tasting wines on the spectrum when presented with blind tastings.