“What’s your driest wine?” is a question we hear from time to time, so this week we thought we’d take a closer look at just what makes a dry wine “dry” - with perhaps a sneak of a suggestion that when we ask for something dry maybe we actually mean something a little different.
But first of all, a visit to the laboratory for a chat with the boffins. To a large degree, how dry a wine is can be defined by its absence of sweetness. The EU likes helping us consumers to make a choice, which is why it established an official system for classifying sweetness levels in wine based on the amount of residual sugar – often referred to as RS - left in wine once fermentation is complete.
Residual sugar is measured in grams per litre (g/l) and is broken down along the following lines:
- Sweet (dulce in Spanish) – over 45 g/l
- Medium sweet (semidulce) – 12-45 g/l
- Medium dry (semiseco) – 4-12 g/l
- Dry (seco) - less than 4 g/l
Note the term “bone dry” refers to wines with residual sugar of less than 0.5 g/l. It is usually used for white, rosé, sparkling, and fortified wines.
To give some concrete examples from our own store, La Raspa from Viñedos Verticales down in Málaga has an RS level of less than 2 g/l; whilst Laventura Viura from MacRobert & Canals in Rioja has an RS of just 1.1 g/l.
But La Raspa is a lovely, fragrant wine with aromas of white flowers, whilst Laventura is an elegant medium-bodied white with delicious touches of pear and peach. Not what you would necessarily associate with a dry white wine.
So, what’s going on here? How can we have dry white wines that are also floral and fruity?
Well, part of the problem is that tasting wine is a highly subjective business and our sensitivity to sweetness can vary enormously between individuals. Theories abound. Some people think it has a lot to do with the fact that a lot of the taste buds that are particularly sensitive to sweetness are around the tip of our tongue, so even how we actually tip the wine into our mouth can influence the level of sweetness we detect.
Another factor that comes into play is the inevitable associations that our brains make when they pick up certain aromas. So, a gentle waft of peach or strawberries in a wine can bring on expectations of sweetness before a drop has even crossed our lips! No wonder then that some people will class a wine with a ripe fruit profile as sweet – or at least not dry – even when its RS levels are low.
There are complications at the other end of the spectrum too. A wine’s acidity will also have a big influence over how sweet or dry we consider it to be. A high level of acidity in a wine will offset, or even mask a lot of its sweetness. So, wines with high natural acidity, like German Riesling for example, can have pretty high levels of RS and still not taste too sweet. Conversely, low acidity in a wine can make any sweetness more noticeable. So even a ‘technically’ dry wine can come across as being sweet-flavoured.
At the end of the day, how dry or sweet you like your wine is down to personal taste and your own preferences. We like them all! But next time you ask for a dry wine, it’s worth pausing for a moment and asking yourself if what you really want is a more austere wine with less flowers on the nose and less fruit in the mouth. If you do, we recommend you focus more on the flavours and aromas and less on the dryness. It will hopefully help to better guide you to the wine that’s right for you.