How can something wet be dry?

The International Riesling Foundation says it has identified appropriate terms for describing the relative dryness or sweetness of Riesling.

The Foundation came up with five categories: Dry, Off-Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, and Sweet.

To help winemakers, the Foundation offers a technical chart of parameters and the relationship among sugar, acid, and pH.

What, no tannin? Of course no tannin; Riesling doesn’t concern itself much with that stuff.

I applaud the effort, but still, I wonder why only Riesling? What about the volumes of sweet Chardonnay and those blueberry milkshakes called Shiraz that flood the marketplace? Aren’t they confusing to consumers looking for so-called dry wines?

Wouldn’t consumers benefit from a chart that generally holds for all wines, which of course would then include tannin in the chart?

Of course, the answer to my last question is yes, but the challenge is nearly insurmountable.

First, while the winemakers may have guidance so that they can label their wine dry, sweet, whatever, there is no such thing as a monopalate—what’s sweet to someone may not be so sweet or sweet at all to someone else, no matter what a chart tells them.

Second, Riesling is in the enviable position of being the rare grape that can handle producing a stellar wine with or without sugar, and at various levels in between.

Third, I believe the emphasis is in the wrong place anyway.

When I run out of things to read, I go to my philosophy books for comfort. Lately, I’ve been digging into Aristotle, Hume, Epictetus, and William James. It occurred to me that maybe I can address this dry/sweet conundrum by using one or two methods of philosophical analysis.

Brace yourself. I’ve never done this before.

Let’s start with me proving the premise that dry is the opposite of wet.

You want proof?

When you wash your clothes they get wet; then, you dry them. When you perspire, your head (or under arms) get wet; then, the wind blows and dries your skin. When you jump into a pool, you get wet; then, a towel rub dries you off. When the barometer goes down, the air is wet; then, the barometer goes up and the air is dry—that’s’ a two-fer, because the opposite of down is up!

Now you can plainly see that the opposite of wet is dry.

Water is likely the wettest thing on earth. Our bodies are composed mostly of water. Without ample water, we would shrivel and die—in other words, we dry out.

The area of the body that has been assigned the task of warning us that we are drying out is our palate—we feel dry and so we drink water to replenish our bodies.

Our palate uses some of the water in our bodies to make saliva. Saliva is wet. When our palate feels dry, it means that our saliva is or has become less wet, or does it?

Do not be deceived by what seems a simple statement. Simplicity is not all that it is cracked up to be when talking about the palate. One can have ample supply of both water in the body and saliva in the mouth, but one can still have a palate that feels dry. You can test this hypothesis by drinking a gallon of water. You will be fully hydrated and certainly not dry. But if you wait a few minutes and then drink two glasses of Tannat or Malbec wine, watch what happens.

A few seconds after you drink either of the two wines you will begin to smack your cheeks, if you can, and rub your tongue against the upper part of your mouth in a near vain attempt to find your saliva. If you don’t panic, the saliva will return. In fact, it probably never left you but it certainly felt that way.

You have just experienced a dry wine, or have you?

It’s agreed that water is wet. It’s also agreed that dry is the opposite of wet. It’s further agreed that our bodies are mostly made of water; the same applies to almost all matter on earth, including wine. If wine is largely made up of water, then wine is wet. If dry is the opposite of wet, how can the Tannat or Malbec you swallowed have been dry?

The answer to the above question is complicated, but it can be illustrated thusly.

We’ve established that if you were to drink from a glass of water, it would feel wet.

If you were to stir in the equivalent of 1 % by volume of sugar to the water and then drink, it will still feel wet, but it will also taste sweet.

If you were to stir into the water a squirt of lemon juice and then drink, the water would still be wet, but it would not seem as sweet.

If you were to stir in another squirt of lemon, but this time add a pinch of shaved dark baking chocolate (99% sugar free), the water would still be wet but it would also seem even less sweet than before, or maybe not sweet at all, depending upon individual taste variations.

If you were to add successive doses of lemon and chocolate, in due time your palate will feel really, really dry. You won’t even notice the sugar, but it will still be there, and the water, of course, will still be wet.

The water, sugar, lemon, and chocolate experiment was a simulation of those components—acid, sugar, etc.—found in all wine, not just in Riesling. As your palate seemed to lose its saliva, it also made you crave something to drink (from this we can speculate over the origin of the phrase, “mouth watering,” when what you taste makes you want to produce more and more saliva.)

My hypothesis and solution:

We have agreed that water is wet, and that dry is the opposite of wet. We have further agreed that wine is mostly water therefore: wine is wet and cannot be dry. We have also agreed that when you add certain components to something wet it can alter your palate perception, and even make your saliva seem to dry up therefore: something wet can make your palate feel dry.

We have further agreed that sugar can make your palate feel good—and sweet—but it doesn’t seem to change the effect of other components and, after a certain point, sugar is overcome by the other components, or at least it takes a back seat to them. While this is happening, the other components are making you feel dry yet, the delivery system—the wine—is still wet therefore: there is no such thing as a dry wine.

For some time I’ve had the belief that the first time anyone used the word dry to define how a wine tasted, that person did not refer to what was in the wine—that far back, people hardly knew what was in wine, but it’s certain that major components—acid and tannin—were prevalent. The person likely used the word in reference to how the wine made the palate feel.

In fact, an Internet buddy once found historical evidence in writing that seemed to support my belief.

As the wine industry progressed, sweet wines took on greater importance. Large doses of sugar in wine changes the focus away from that dry sensation. Over time, people began to refer to wine either as dry or as sweet, and by extension, they began to think that a wine that makes your palate feel dry cannot be sweet therefore, it cannot contain sugar, and that false notion has been spread around ever since. Just one taste of a well-produced Late Harvest Riesling will put the notion to rest as such wines often provide sweetness alongside that dry sensation on the palate.

In my opinion, the new chart that is devised for Riesling is nice, but it is not the answer to the seeming age-old, and completely inaccurate question, do you like dry Riesling?

There is no such thing as a dry Riesling—remember, all wine is wet.

Here’s my solution to the dry vs. sweet discussion. Take the chart that is devised for winemakers and establish certain acid, tannin, pH, sugar balances that pair well with certain food types. This category may include wines with sweetness, like those Late Harvest Rieslings, which, because of their acidity do pair with certain foods.
Label such wines as: best with food (or insert the names of foods).

This system prevents people in and outside the wine industry from talking nonsense such as something wet like wine is dry. The system would also stop people from thinking philosophically about wine and instead think of it as food.

For those who can’t give up the chic, geeky practice of analysis, the winemakers can also label some wines: best to sip and analyze.

Plus, for those who cling to the taste of sweetness and refuse to try a so-called dry wine, and are tired of being fooled by those so-called sweet wines that make them pucker, label sweet wines that don’t make your palate also feel dry as: best for dessert.

Tongue may be planted in cheek here, but not by much!

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2008. All rights reserved.

2 Responses to “How can something wet be dry?”

  1. Andrew Connor says:

    It seems to me that the difficult thing to communicate on the label is how the residual sugar and the acidity of the wine combine to give the impression of sweetness or lack thereof.

    I prospose a sort of pie-chart with the sugar in (say) red at the top and the acid in green at the bottom. Each style of wine from Mosel kabinett to Pfalz grosses gewachs would have a characteristic shape.

    On the subject of wording, one that winds me up is ‘smooth’

    what does that mean? For some people it seems to be low in acid, others low in tannin, others fruity. It seems literally meaningless to me

  2. Thomas says:

    Andrew, I don’t think any chart matters to anyone but a wine geek, which represents about 5% of the wine-buying public.

    In my view, if the industry wants to tell the remaining 95% something, it should tell them what the wine goes with (food wise) and what it is intended for (dinner, sipping, dessert, etc.).

    This is a case where too much information leads to no information. As you say, using a word like smooth is confusing–using a sugar chart is as confusing, simply because most people don’t know their own capacity to take or leave sugar, and they certainly have no clue concerning the relationship between acid and sugar.

    The day that consumers beg for a sugar chart on their cola bottle or their packaged foods is the day that wine will have to provide a sugar chart.