"Sweet" vs. "Dry" Wines

by Alexis Beltrami

How many times have you overheard someone in a restaurant or shop saying they want a wine that "isn't too sweet"? Maybe you've said this yourself; most people think they want a dry wine. Dry seems sophisticated. In fact, this is an easy demand to meet, since most table wines today (with the exception of White Zinfandel) are entirely dry--in the technical sense that they contain virtually no residual sugar. All of the natural sugar in the grapes has been converted into alcohol through fermentation. What most people taste as sweetness is really fruitiness. Ripe wine grapes, when fermented, yield a wine that tastes of fruit (but curiously, not usually of grapes), and fruitiness powerfully suggests sweetness. But this isn't a bad thing! On the contrary, winemakers around the world go to great lengths to extract as much ripeness, and resulting fruitiness, from their grapes as possible. Speaking very broadly, most wines (especially reds) that taste dry simply lack fruit and flavor, and aren't very good. Such wines, if they are clean and have refreshing acidity, can be ok to wash down a meal, but they won't enhance it much. Many white wines are designed to be balanced on the acidic and refreshing side, but even then the better examples will display intensity of fruit. In complex wines, ripe fruitiness is balanced by tannins, acidity, and alcohol, and often complemented by flavors from oak barrels, or intriguing mineral or earthy elements, but the essence is always the fruit. So next time, ask your waiter or wine merchant for a wine with "good fruit."