I do wish that the words dry and sweet to describe wines would go away—far away, or at least be explained properly.

Neither word does much in the way of identification. I’ve come across many people who think a wine with 2% residual sugar is too dry, but an equal number of people that consider it sweet.

A lot of us tell people that no wine is completely dry—there’s residual sugar in every wine. But some wines are so low in residual sugar that it makes the argument weak. Plus, most humans (there are always exceptions) cannot detect sugar in wine if the residual is .4x % or less by volume.

The problem is not with identifying how much sugar is or isn’t in a dry wine, but whether the word dry should be used as a reference to the opposite of sweet.

Put simply, the word dry in wine is misapplied. Most think it refers to a lack of sugar. But the lack of sugar in dry wine is coincidental and not necessarily why a wine seems dry. If you don’t believe me, try measuring the residual sugar in a Brut Champagne.

When I started to make wine and then to sell it, I quickly realized two things: acidity plays a major role in how we perceive sweetness or lack of it, and it’s what the wine does to our palate that makes it seem dry—the palate, not the wine.

When you think dry, think tannin and tartaric—separate or apart, the two can make you pucker.

Tartaric acid has the advantage of stimulating saliva production to counteract the tartness, which is where we get the idea of a wine being mouth-watering (I suppose, depending on one’s perspective, this could be a disadvantage). On the other hand, tannins produce that cotton mouth feeling or sandpaper effect.

Wines can be high in tartaric or in tannin whether or not they contain residual sugar. But sugar has a way of masking or subduing the effect of those pucker producers. As the sugar rises, the severity of the dryness on our palate recedes. It takes a lot of sugar to do this, and if you don’t believe that, think Sauternes, Late Harvest Riesling, or Ice Wines. Some of these wines are as sweet as honey yet they deliver an acidic bite that can pucker, if only a little.

I’ve held this belief that the word dry is misapplied for a long time, and every time I’ve had a conversation about the subject with a consumer or a wine geek, I get in return incredulity, if not scorn. I particularly remember the scorn I received from a wine geek with a chemistry background, someone I would have thought should know better. I proved nothing to him, but he proved to me the power of myth.

Today, I typed in the following words into Google: dry wine etymology of.

Below is a link to what I found. Read the whole thing. There’s an interesting discussion about medieval times and how dry may have originally been meant not to describe the wine, but to describe what it does on the palate.

Wine of Today:

On the label, this wine calls itself Dry White Wine.

It’s from the Greek Island of Rhodes along the Athiri mountain slopes, which happens to be the name of the wine:

Athiri Mountain Slopes 2006 Rhodes.

My first taste of wine from Rhodes was when I was 29 and traveling in Greece. My wife and I sat at an outdoor restaurant one evening on the island and ordered a bottle of Rhodos white with two lobster dinners. The lobster was so good—and cheap—we ordered seconds, this time with a bottle of Lindhos, also a wine from Rhodes. Each wine was crisp and bright, and perfect for the shellfish. But that was long ago, and it is all I remembered of the wines.

This 2006 Athiri brought me back to Rhodes.

Its nose was of nutmeg and spice, plus a hint of ocean air. Its mouth feel was earthy, with a touch of lemony minerals, if there are such things.

I counted the seconds—the wine’s finish lasted about 22.

Overall, I liked the wine. Its only flaw was a slight intrusion of 13% alcohol. But then, I consumed it with a typical Mediterranean dish—calamari.

I fixed the dish the way I had it on the Greek island of Samos during that same trip. Lightly breaded squid tubes sautéed in garlic-infused lemon-olive oil paired with chopped potatoes and shallots in garlic butter and a touch of chicken stock, with paprika .

The dish subdued both Athiri’s alcohol and its crispness. Things seemed a lot less dry on my palate!

In the end, however, I discovered the true purpose of the wine.

You know the old saw: you can’t pair wine with salad dressing. I topped a salad plate of arugula and fresh Swiss chard with Moroccan oil cured black olives and sprinkled some fig balsamic vinegar over it.

With the olives and vinegar, Athiri became a fully rounded, integrated white wine that knew its place. My palate was not dry at all, only completely satisfied.

Athiri 2006 Rhodes is produced by Emery Wines and imported into New York by Athene Importers of Long Island.

The price was $17 a bottle, before the 20% volume discount.


Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
January, 2008. All rights reserved.

3 Responses to “Dry/Sweet”

  1. winophite says:

    This post brings back a memory of one of your earlier ones. Something titled like, “waiter is this wine dry?” I believe I’m going to go back and try to reread it. It gave an experiment to do with lemon juice and sugar…Anyway, it went a long way towards demonstrating the differences between sweet,dry and acidic tastes. It’s a good one to reference here I think. Well, on to “Etymology” thanks. Winophite

  2. Thomas says:

    Yes, it is a reference to the earlier post.

    It seems that no matter how many times I say it, people don’t get that the “dry” connection is to the acidity and tannins and not to the sugars, and so I have to keep saying it. But I was happy to discover that online explanation of the word “dry” that went back to medieval times. I’ve always suspected it was the case, but never had the etymology at my fingertips.

    I think that after stupidity, myths are the hardest things to combat…