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Dry Fiction

Let me begin by saying I prefer my table wines classically dry – that is topping out at the 2-4 grams per liter that is generally considered most people’s threshold for detecting sweetness in a wine.  Obviously, there is nothing wrong with wines that exceed that limit; it’s just that I find most of them less-pleasurable drinking with my carbs and proteins, the way some people don’t like alcohol exceeding 14% in their table wines.

What does disturb me is that people who claim to have gagged at the higher residual sugar in Kendall Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay are now trying to re-write reality in their love of – and defense of – fragrant varietals, especially Rieslings.

As we all know, “balance” is the treasured word when a winemaker has an element in her wine that is “too” anything – too sweet, too tart, too flabby, too unstable, too-much alcohol, too-little alcohol.  In places that have regulations on how wines are made, allowances are generally given to “correct” some excess or deficiency.  “Add acid in Napa, add sugar in Europe” has often been the refrain.  And you might even do such a good job with acidity to fool me into thinking a 5-grams-per-liter wine is dryer than that.  I’ll accept your craftsmanship.

But having balanced a wine that has detectable residual sugar does not make it a dry wine.  Yet winemakers, especially in Germany and Alsace, have tried to extend that fiction and have a coterie of fans supporting them. I had one excellent winemaker in the Nahe argue that a delicious Riesling he made with 10 grams of sugar was dry because of its acidity.  No, I argued, it’s a good wine, it’s a balanced wine, but it is a sweet wine, regardless of the lax Europe Union regulations (a sop to what country?) on the matter.

Why the insistence on this fiction?  One is that American consumers are said to be convinced that all Rieslings are sweet, which, of course, they are not.  Telling him a sweet wine isn’t sweet might convince him otherwise.  Two is that there are no standard labeling systems to let an average consumer – not a wine geek – know what is dry, off-dry and various degrees of sweet.  (And please let’s not get sidetracked into the arguments about those generally subjective French and German back-label sweetness scales.) Three is that dry wines are usually easier to sell to a consumer who wants a bottle of something to take home for dinner.

But my belief is that those who argue that the sweet Rieslings or Gewurzes are dry are doing a disservice to those beautiful Rieslings and Gewurzes that actually are dry.  Give a consumer a lovely, dry, 2- or 3-grams-per liter Riesling one day, and then give him one with three times the sugar the next day, telling him both are dry, will only add to the belief that all Rieslings are sweet.

Mentally, I separate non-fortified wines into three broad sweetness categories – (1) those that are truly dry, (2) those that are off-dry, or somewhat sweet, that are well-balanced and (3) those that are nectary, obviously very high in sugar, and which are usually considered dessert wines.  I also distinguish between those wines, usually poorly made, that leave a lingering taste on the palate like a bartender’s simple sugar.  These I consider “sugary sweet” as opposed to the “fruity sweet” of a well-balanced wine.

I would love it if wine labels would simply have a terminology like our old “off-dry” to indicate moderate sweetness with balancing acidity.  Or, perhaps, “balanced for dryness,” which at least wouldn’t bend reality too much.  Or maybe call traditional low-sugar wines “classic dry.”

But don’t ask me to take a sweet wine that is well-balanced and call it dry.  My palate and my logic would never forgive me that heresy.

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