Monday, December 4, 2006

Waiter, My Water Is Dry

~When I was a boy in Brooklyn, New York, the following was a local beer company's radio and television commercial jingle:
~"My beer is Rheingold the dry beer. Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer. It's not bitter not sweet; extra dry-flavored treat; won't you try extra dry Rheingold beer."
~The tune perplexed my young mind. How can something wet be dry?
~When I became a wine-consuming adult, or reasonably close to being an adult, I learned what the beer jingle meant—or did I?
~According to some wine writers and most consumers, the word “dry” describes a wine without sugar. The opposite of dry, then, is sweet. Give me a break! I learned nothing at all.
~I know that my water is sugar free, but it also isn't dry.
~Here's an experiment to show you what I mean: fill up an 8-ounce glass of water and then take a small taste. It is not sweet; it certainly is wet; it doesn't remind at all of dry wine.
~Water's sensation of relative blandness on the palate has to do with its neutral pH.

pH—potential of hydrogen—is a measure of acidity relative to alkalinity. The scientific calculating scale for pH has neutrality falling at the value of 7, which is the pH of water. Acidic properties are below the value of 7; alkaline or caustic properties are above the value of 7. The optimum pH of finished wine falls between 3.0 and 3.7. Like the Richter scale that measures earthquakes, the pH scale is logarithmic, so that 3.x range below neutral 7 makes wine quite acidic (vinegar is about 2.9 and beer is about 4.5).

~Back to the experiment: add back the water you tasted so that your glass is back to 8 ounces full; put two lemons on the counter; cut one lemon into wedges and squirt the juice of one wedge into the glass of water and stir. You just adjusted the water's pH down. Take a really tiny sip. Don't sip too much because you want most of the water to be in the glass when you are done with this part of the experiment.
~On that first sip, take note of what, if anything, happened on your tongue, especially at the sides. Now, squirt another wedge into the water, stir, and sip; do this with lemon wedges until your tongue and mouth get so puckered you can't stand it anymore—it may mean cutting up that second lemon.
~What you did, obviously, was to make the water acidic. With each addition of lemon juice your tongue and mouth felt like they were drying that much more.
~Now, rinse your mouth with plain water to get your palate back to neutral.
~Into the lemony water drop 1/8 teaspoon of sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves and then take a tiny, tiny sip. Do this in increments of 1/8 teaspoon of sugar until you can taste sweetness.
~For most of us, the first two 1/8 teaspoons of sugar won't make a noticeable difference; our palates will still feel quite dry from the lemon in the water. At some point, however, subsequent 1/8-teaspoon sugar additions will become noticeable. Make note of how much sugar it takes to reach that point.
~As you continue to add sugar, somewhere along the way the balance between the sugar and lemon will be pleasing (we’d call that lemonade, no?). Make note of how much sugar it took to reach that pleasing balance.
~Keep adding sugar until the liquid becomes cloyingly sweet, just for the fun of it...
~You can make the experiment even more interesting if instead of plain water you add tea to the water. That adds tannin to the water, and tannin also makes the palate dry out so, with the lemon and tannin, it might take more sugar than it would with plain water and lemon before you start to taste the sweetness.
~In a nutshell, the above is what winemakers do to wine, although they often don’t add sugar, their method generally is to leave residual sugar in the wine by stopping the fermentation before it completes. How much sugar they leave depends upon how acidic the wine is, and what effect they are reaching for in the wine.
~A so-called dry wine is produced by allowing the fermentation to go to completion. Still, traces of sugar remain in most wines—in some cases, a “dry” wine can include more than just a trace; it can equal as much as just under a teaspoon of sugar per bottle. Generally, our palates have a hard time distinguishing sugar in wine when it represents less than .5% by volume.

Brut Champagne is a so-called dry wine. Yet it can include as much as close to three teaspoons of sugar per bottle.

~So, rather than it describing a wine without sugar, the word “dry” really describes the sensation of the wine on your palate.
~There's a saying in the wine business: "Americans talk dry but they drink sweet." It is a generality, but in the mass market it is true. The reason behind Americans talking dry is that the public has been bullied into accepting that only unsophisticated palates don't like so-called dry wine. But so many wines that are marketed as “dry” are on the sweet side, or at least they include identifiable residual sugar—a lot of those wines seem to have critters on their labels, but I don’t know if that is a coincidence or an occurrence of a higher order!
~Wouldn’t it be much better if we drop the charade and refer to wine by what it tastes like and not by what category it is supposed to fall into, even when it does not fall into that category? Here’s my proposition to the wine industry.
~Identify the relative acid/sugar balance on your labels. At first, consumers would not know what the label should mean to them, but as they taste a lot more wines, over time they will notice which acid/sugar balances they tend to prefer. They will have discovered that they like a certain style of wine instead of a certain category. More important, one facet of enjoying wine will have been demystified, or should I say, demythified.

If the feds read this blog (and who thinks that they aren’t?) they should consider this: since the acid/sugar on the label would actually mean and accomplish something, maybe it can replace the sulfite warning? Or maybe I am getting carried away…

Do You Know What a Wine Geek Is?
~Forget the original definition of the word geek, which entails working in the circus and biting the heads off live chickens. A wine geek doesn’t work in the circus, although some remind of clowns.
~A wine geek is someone who gets great enjoyment out of collecting, talking about, and spending a lot of money on wine. (Geeks also like to think that they know what makes for the best wines; a segment of them collectively thinks that the best can be quantified with a number rating, but that subject is for a later post on this blog.)
~Certainty is a frequent affliction suffered by the wine geek.
~The last time I tried to persuade a few wine geeks that it is inaccurate to define dry wine as one that lacks sugar I was called names and even laughed at—ridiculed would be a good description of what happened.
~Of course, none of the geeks tried my experiment. They don’t need to. They are certain.
~Take my advice: don’t be a wine geek—it's limiting.

For possibly more lucid explanations, try these links: ph, Thor, epicure, wikisweet,

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
December, 2006. All rights reserved.

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