Joel Vincent

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Is Dry the Opposite of Sweet?

by contributing author Thomas Pellechia

You know that sensation you get when you take a little of that wine in your mouth and your tongue starts to stick to your cheeks? We call that “dry.”

How about that marvelous late harvest wine that has the intensity of a wallop of honey? That’s “sweet.”

“Dry” is the opposite of “sweet,” right? Well, it is, and it isn’t.

If a winemaker lets juice ferment until it finishes, it generally is going to give you a dry wine. To get a sweet wine, the winemaker stops the fermentation at before it is complete.  Another way of getting a sweet wine is for there to be so much sugar to begin with that when yeast cells can no longer do their job-they die in a solution that exceeds 15% alcohol by volume-there is some sugar left in the wine. In fact, there is almost always some sugar left in wine, so how can any wine be dry?

As their friends die off and the rest of them weaken, it is near impossible for remaining yeast cells to eat all the sugar. How much sugar remains in the finished wine depends upon how much sugar there was to start with, and how much alcohol the little yeast cells have created. In a wine allowed to ferment all the way, there can be anywhere from .05 to .50 % residual sugar by volume. Generally, the human tongue doesn’t register sugar in wine until it surpasses .50% by volume, and so we call it a dry wine.

High tannin and high acidity also make a wine “dry.” In fact, those are the things that make you pucker. This is where the subject of dry and sweet gets interesting. Have you ever seen a wine called Dry Riesling?  Read between the lines and what that usually means is that there is so much acidity in the wine that we (the producer) were able to leave about 1.5% residual sugar, and you can’t taste it. And then there is sparkling wine, a marketing marvel to behold.

The sparkling wine with the least residual sugar (under .50%) is called in France “Sauvage” in the New World “Naturel.” The next “driest” sparkling wine is called “Brut.” But Brut wines contain anywhere from .50 to 1.50% residual sugar-which is just under being downright sweet. The reason you don’t taste the sugar much is that the wine is so high in acid it balances out the sugar, plus the carbon dioxide masks the sugar to some degree. With the next sparkling wine names comes the marketing.

After “Brut” there is “Dry” and that sparkling wine normally exceeds 2% sugar. After “Dry” there is “Extra Dry,” which is sweeter still, about as sweet as a dessert wine.

So the answer to the question, is dry the opposite of sweet….sometimes.

About the Author
Thomas Pellechia is a contributing author to Vivi’s Wine Journal and has 21 years in the wine business.   Thomas was formerly co-proprietor of  is-wine and is the author of Garlic, Wine, and Olive Oil Historical Anecdotes and Recipes with another wine book in the works.  

Thomas served as a wine maker at a prominent Finger Lakes vineyard for many years and has been writing about wine and food for 15 years.  You can find his work published in Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, SlowFood Intl., Brandweek, Wines and Vines, Practical Winery, American Wine Society Journal and, of course, Vivi’s Wine Journal.  He also writes two weekly newspaper columns in upstate NY and can be found chatting about wine at WineTalk.com.

Thomas Pellechia This article is published with the express permission of the author and is copyrighted by the author.  The author’s copyrights superceed the Creative Commons copyright that governs the rest of Vivi’s Wine Journal.
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