What is a dry wine?
What Does it Mean for Wine to be Dry?
There are a lot of myths, and a fair amount of confusion around what, exactly, the adjective "dry" means with respect to wine. I often hear people assert that "dry means a wine is of better quality," or "dry means that the wine has aged," or, just a few days ago, "only red wines can be dry."
All of these assertions are false. Every single one. Dry doesn't really tell you anything about the quality or age of a wine (though there is a tendency for wines to become dryer with age), and red wines absolutely can be dry—in fact, by their very nature, red wines tend to be dry.
Dry, with respect to wine, means that the wine is lower in sugar (and hence less sweet) than other wine. Dry in wine parlance is the opposite of sweet. Dry wines are less sweet because the fermentation process has converted most of the natural sugar from the grapes or other fruit into alcohol. Fermenting is actually caused by the active yeast cultures added by the wine makers to the juice. The yeast cultures consume the sugar and convert it into alcohol, producing carbon dioxide and heat as by products.
If you read technical discussions of wine making (or beer making or cider making) you may see this natural process referred to as "fermenting out," meaning that the sugar has been fermented out of the juice. The wine maker generally steps in and stops the fermentation (using one or more methods to kill the yeast) before all the sugar is completely consumed by the yeast. Less sugar means a drier wine; you might imagine a sweetness scale or spectrum for wine with dry at the far left, and sweet at the far right. Wines may be anywhere on the spectrum between dry and sweet. In fact the same wine from the same wine maker but from different years can easily be more or less dry in one year than another.
Interpreting Wine Labels on Dry Wines
Almost any kind of wine (or beer, cider, or mead) can be produced in a dry style, and there's a wide spectrum of flavors between very dry and very sweet. In some countries, there are labeling laws that define the maximum amount of residual sugar a wine may have in order to be labeled "dry." In parts of Europe that belong to the EU, a dry wine must contain .4% or less (4 grams per liter) residual sugar.
You may notice wine labels in English using "dry" as a descriptive label on the front of the bottle, especially in the case of sparkling wines. Alternatively, you may see sec, asciutto, secco, ortrocken, on imported wines. The label on the back of the bottle may include "dry" as one of the adjectives used to describe the wine's flavor. In terms of sparkling wines, both "sec" and "brut" may be used to designate a wine on the dryer side. The spectrum in general terms runs from dry at one extreme (little or no sugar) to semi-sweet or off-dry (some sugar) to sweet wines. Also, and this gets a little tricky, other flavors besides sweetness can affect the overall impression of a wine; acidity, for instance, can make a sweet wine seem less sweet, but the wine isn't technically "dry."
Sometimes a wine maker will actually add sugar back, in the form of unfermented juice, to the wine (this is illegal in California). Alternatively, the natural fermentation process may be halted by introducing sulphur, or chilling the wine to kill the yeast, or adding additional alcohol, in an effort to limit or control how dry the final wine is. In the case of many wines, aging the wine in the bottle also results in dryer wine.
Trying Dry Wines
Dry wine can be an acquired taste, especially the very dry reds. Most red table wines are on the dry side of the sugar spectrum, by nature., so if you're a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Zinfandel (not the "white" style), you're already drinking from the dry side of the sugar spectrum. But if you're accustomed to Rieslings that are on the sweet side, for instance, a dry Riesling may be very different but quite to your taste. The Chateau Ste Michelle Dry Riesling, for example, retains much of the character and robustness of their traditional Riesling, but doesn't have quite the same degree of sweetness. You might find Rieslings a fun and affordable wine to try in terms of the varieties of dry and sweet.
It's also a lot of fun to pick up a couple of bottles of domestic sparkling wine and compare the "dry" or Brut or Sec versions with the sweet version from the same producer.
Dry Wines and Food
Very dry wines are excellent to cook with. A good dry wine is a fabulous ingredient in a classic cheese fondue, as well as the perfect food pairing when you serve the fondue. Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Riesling are all wines that tend to be on the dry side, though they may also be produced in a sweet style, especially if the grapes were harvested late in the season, at the height of ripeness and sweetness. Generally, if the particular wine is in a sweet style, the label will include "sweet" or "late harvest."
Dry wines also serve well in marinades or reductions, because dry wines are flavorful without becoming syrupy. Cooking with dry red wines can add a savory piquant flavor to recipes using red wine like hearty stews, tomato based sauces, or the traditional boef bourgignon. Honestly, most red wines are dry by nature, so as long as you're using a wine you'd happily drink, and the label doesn't say "sweet," you're likely good to go.
Here are basic principles to use regarding cooking with dry wines:
- Don't cook with any wine, ever, you wouldn't happily sip from a glass.
- If your recipe has "dry white wine" as an ingredient, I'd go with a California or Washington Sauvignon Blanc, unless it's an Asian or spicy dish, in which case I'd look for a Gewürztraminer or a Riesling (it should be fairly easy to find a Riesling that doesn't say Sweet or Late Harves).
- If your recipe uses "dry red wine" as an ingredient, try a Petite Syrah, Zinfandel (not the white version--it's sweet), or Merlot.
- Often a recipe will call for Port or Sherry or Vermouth that is "dry." These will bear the word dry on the label fairly clearly, but if you avoid the ones that say "sweet" they'll still be on the dry half of the spectrum.
Recipes that Use Dry Wine
Here's a classic cheese fondue recipe using a dry Sauvignon Blanc. Elise, of Simply Recipes, is one of my very favorite food bloggers; you might look at her recipe index while you're there for of her other recipes that use wine.
This is a fairly basic Fondue pot set that uses Sterno to keep the fondue hot. Personally, I hate electric fondue pot.