Referring to a wine as “dry” is one of the first descriptors most of us learn as a way to talk about wine, but “dry” is also one of the words that is misused the most often by wine drinkers.
The reason the term “dry” gets misused is because we commonly use it rationally, relating the word to sensory characteristics of wine, even though these sensory characteristics are not what we mean when we say a wine is dry.
A dry wine is simply a wine that has no residual sugar, meaning it isn’t sweet. When grape juice converts to wine, alcohol is produced in the fermentation process because yeast eats the sugar present in the juice. In many wines, the winemaker stops the fermentation process before the yeast has time to eat all the sugar, leaving the wine a touch sweet. When a winemaker leaves a little sugar behind, we call this residual sugar. To make a dry wine, the winemaker will instead let the fermentation process finish completely, allowing the yeast to consume all the sugar present. No more sugar, so no sugary sweetness; the wine is therefore dry.
Tip! Do not confuse the absence of sweetness or dryness with the absence of fruit. In a dry wine you will still taste fruit, the wine just won’t taste sweet, like fruit juice.
If a dry wine just means a wine isn’t sweet, then why do so many wine drinkers use the term incorrectly?
Often, we confuse the term “dry” with a sense. A common misconception is that a dry wine is a wine that will “dry” out your mouth. So if we like this sensation, we like “dry” wines. This is not the case. A wine that creates a drying sensation inside your mouth is a wine that is strong in tannins (we go into detail about that sensation here), and is not caused from a wine being “dry.” Confusing, we know. While many wines that happen to not taste sweet also happen to be high in tannins, the two are not the same thing. A wine can only dry out your mouth if it has strong tannins, not if it is “dry.”
Alcohol In Dry Wines
Another misconception is that a “dry” wine is a wine that is higher in alcohol. Therefore, if we like higher alcohol wines, we like “dry” wines. This again is not the case, but we make this connection in our brains because in higher alcohol wines we tend to not only taste the fruit, but also experience more of the actual alcohol flavors. These flavors can appear in our mouths to have an absence of moisture, which we rationally would think of as being dry. While again, it is possible for a wine to not be sweet and also be high in alcohol, a high alcohol wine is not always “dry.” There are actually some very high in alcohol dessert wines that are incredibly sweet.