Friday, August 1, 2008

How can something wet be dry?

The International Riesling Foundation says it has identified appropriate terms for describing the relative dryness or sweetness of Riesling.

The Foundation came up with five categories: Dry, Off-Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, and Sweet.

To help winemakers, the Foundation offers a technical chart of parameters and the relationship among sugar, acid, and pH.

What, no tannin? Of course no tannin; Riesling doesn’t concern itself much with that stuff.

I applaud the effort, but still, I wonder why only Riesling? What about the volumes of sweet Chardonnay and those blueberry milkshakes called Shiraz that flood the marketplace? Aren’t they confusing to consumers looking for so-called dry wines?

Wouldn’t consumers benefit from a chart that generally holds for all wines, which of course would then include tannin in the chart?

Of course, the answer to my last question is yes, but the challenge is nearly insurmountable.

First, while the winemakers may have guidance so that they can label their wine dry, sweet, whatever, there is no such thing as a monopalate—what’s sweet to someone may not be so sweet or sweet at all to someone else, no matter what a chart tells them.

Second, Riesling is in the enviable position of being the rare grape that can handle producing a stellar wine with or without sugar, and at various levels in between.

Third, I believe the emphasis is in the wrong place anyway.

When I run out of things to read, I go to my philosophy books for comfort. Lately, I’ve been digging into Aristotle, Hume, Epictetus, and William James. It occurred to me that maybe I can address this dry/sweet conundrum by using one or two methods of philosophical analysis.

Brace yourself. I’ve never done this before.

Let’s start with me proving the premise that dry is the opposite of wet.

You want proof?

When you wash your clothes they get wet; then, you dry them. When you perspire, your head (or under arms) get wet; then, the wind blows and dries your skin. When you jump into a pool, you get wet; then, a towel rub dries you off. When the barometer goes down, the air is wet; then, the barometer goes up and the air is dry—that’s’ a two-fer, because the opposite of down is up!

Now you can plainly see that the opposite of wet is dry.

Water is likely the wettest thing on earth. Our bodies are composed mostly of water. Without ample water, we would shrivel and die—in other words, we dry out.

The area of the body that has been assigned the task of warning us that we are drying out is our palate—we feel dry and so we drink water to replenish our bodies.

Our palate uses some of the water in our bodies to make saliva. Saliva is wet. When our palate feels dry, it means that our saliva is or has become less wet, or does it?

Do not be deceived by what seems a simple statement. Simplicity is not all that it is cracked up to be when talking about the palate. One can have ample supply of both water in the body and saliva in the mouth, but one can still have a palate that feels dry. You can test this hypothesis by drinking a gallon of water. You will be fully hydrated and certainly not dry. But if you wait a few minutes and then drink two glasses of Tannat or Malbec wine, watch what happens.

A few seconds after you drink either of the two wines you will begin to smack your cheeks, if you can, and rub your tongue against the upper part of your mouth in a near vain attempt to find your saliva. If you don’t panic, the saliva will return. In fact, it probably never left you but it certainly felt that way.

You have just experienced a dry wine, or have you?

It’s agreed that water is wet. It’s also agreed that dry is the opposite of wet. It’s further agreed that our bodies are mostly made of water; the same applies to almost all matter on earth, including wine. If wine is largely made up of water, then wine is wet. If dry is the opposite of wet, how can the Tannat or Malbec you swallowed have been dry?

The answer to the above question is complicated, but it can be illustrated thusly.

We’ve established that if you were to drink from a glass of water, it would feel wet.

If you were to stir in the equivalent of 1 % by volume of sugar to the water and then drink, it will still feel wet, but it will also taste sweet.

If you were to stir into the water a squirt of lemon juice and then drink, the water would still be wet, but it would not seem as sweet.

If you were to stir in another squirt of lemon, but this time add a pinch of shaved dark baking chocolate (99% sugar free), the water would still be wet but it would also seem even less sweet than before, or maybe not sweet at all, depending upon individual taste variations.

If you were to add successive doses of lemon and chocolate, in due time your palate will feel really, really dry. You won’t even notice the sugar, but it will still be there, and the water, of course, will still be wet.

The water, sugar, lemon, and chocolate experiment was a simulation of those components—acid, sugar, etc.—found in all wine, not just in Riesling. As your palate seemed to lose its saliva, it also made you crave something to drink (from this we can speculate over the origin of the phrase, “mouth watering,” when what you taste makes you want to produce more and more saliva.)

My hypothesis and solution:

We have agreed that water is wet, and that dry is the opposite of wet. We have further agreed that wine is mostly water therefore: wine is wet and cannot be dry. We have also agreed that when you add certain components to something wet it can alter your palate perception, and even make your saliva seem to dry up therefore: something wet can make your palate feel dry.

We have further agreed that sugar can make your palate feel good—and sweet—but it doesn’t seem to change the effect of other components and, after a certain point, sugar is overcome by the other components, or at least it takes a back seat to them. While this is happening, the other components are making you feel dry yet, the delivery system—the wine—is still wet therefore: there is no such thing as a dry wine.

For some time I’ve had the belief that the first time anyone used the word dry to define how a wine tasted, that person did not refer to what was in the wine—that far back, people hardly knew what was in wine, but it’s certain that major components—acid and tannin—were prevalent. The person likely used the word in reference to how the wine made the palate feel.

In fact, an Internet buddy once found historical evidence in writing that seemed to support my belief.

As the wine industry progressed, sweet wines took on greater importance. Large doses of sugar in wine changes the focus away from that dry sensation. Over time, people began to refer to wine either as dry or as sweet, and by extension, they began to think that a wine that makes your palate feel dry cannot be sweet therefore, it cannot contain sugar, and that false notion has been spread around ever since. Just one taste of a well-produced Late Harvest Riesling will put the notion to rest as such wines often provide sweetness alongside that dry sensation on the palate.

In my opinion, the new chart that is devised for Riesling is nice, but it is not the answer to the seeming age-old, and completely inaccurate question, do you like dry Riesling?

There is no such thing as a dry Riesling—remember, all wine is wet.

Here’s my solution to the dry vs. sweet discussion. Take the chart that is devised for winemakers and establish certain acid, tannin, pH, sugar balances that pair well with certain food types. This category may include wines with sweetness, like those Late Harvest Rieslings, which, because of their acidity do pair with certain foods.

Label such wines as: best with food (or insert the names of foods).

This system prevents people in and outside the wine industry from talking nonsense such as something wet like wine is dry. The system would also stop people from thinking philosophically about wine and instead think of it as food.

For those who can’t give up the chic, geeky practice of analysis, the winemakers can also label some wines: best to sip and analyze.

Plus, for those who cling to the taste of sweetness and refuse to try a so-called dry wine, and are tired of being fooled by those so-called sweet wines that make them pucker, label sweet wines that don’t make your palate also feel dry as: best for dessert.

Tongue may be planted in cheek here, but not by much!

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2008. All rights reserved.


  1. I have to say I'm more bugged by the term "off-dry" used often with German wines.

    But anyway, wouldn't a RS scale be best? (1-5) - I think Oliver Humbrecht's scale works on his wines - why not just adopt that? Making consumers learn a not-so-intuitive scale is not a winning solution.

  2. Jack,

    My point is that the focus is in the wrong place.

    Consumers want to know will they like the wine and/or what food will pair with it. A sugar scale doesn't answer those questions.

    The more the industry tries to develop short-answer scales or charts or numbers (i.e. ratings) the less consumers get to understand the basic thing that wine is: a drink to enjoy mostly with, but often without food.

    To me, preferring the overall taste of any particular wine is all that is needed. I have yet to hear anyone ask for a sugar scale associated with cola drinks or milkshakes or beer! Why is that?

  3. I'm with Jack about RS scales because they disclose what some winemaker/merchants would rather not discuss. I recently tasted an assortment of fine NYS FL wines, including a "dry" Riesling. It was very well made but "off dry" according to my taste buds. When I posed a question Are your wines often chaptalized? to the very knowlegable worker, he answered "We don't need to chaptalize our wines like others do." Fair enough, except it didn't answer my question -- though I think I know the answer :-)
    I know, I know. Wines can seem "dry" and still have considerable RS, but I still would like to have the figure -- just like % alc, acidity, etc.

  4. Jay,

    An obsession with stats represents about 3 to 5% of the wine buying public. If you sold a product, would you go through hoops to cater to that small a percentage of your customers?

    The fact is, most consumers don't ask for the information, and they don't need it either, because they have no idea what it means. Plus, you bring up THE point that negates using scales I quote you:

    "...including a "dry" Riesling. It was very well made but "off dry" according to my taste buds.."

    That's the problem. Your taste buds are not mine, nor are they the buds of a thousand others. All the stats and scales in the world won't address that situation, so what is the point, except to satisfy a small number of wine consumers who probably should just enjoy what they like and not worry too much whether it fits what they thought of it before they knew the stats--not that I am accusing you of doing that, but I am accusing the majority of geekdom.

    Does anyone out there ever consider the possibility that wine is simply a drink to enjoy? Why don't we have these arguments over milk or better yet, chocolate milk, which i hear is not as dry as the label claims ;)

    My other questions remain unanswered. Why is there so much concern over Riesling when that in fact is the only varietal wine that admits to containing residual sugar. You should see some of the sugar readings I have gotten from so-called commercial dry wines that weren't Riesling.

    The R.S/dry case is beginning to seem to me like an obsessive argument rather that a reasoned concept.

  5. Thomas,

    As (almost) always, you are making many valid points even if you, on some occasions, use clever logical devices to make paradoxical and humorous! points about the (mis)use of language. I'll grant you the likelihood that bottle labelling issues about RS, "dry" vs "off-dry," etc. appeal to a distinct minority of winiacs. On the other hand, one can marshall a good argument that that off-dry Riesling I tasted should not have been labelled dry if Truth in Marketing is a key selling point. This is no small issue for Riesling lovers; Tom Stevenson works himself into a state approaching apoplexy RE: the crap-shoot among today's Alsatian Rieslings. The dude has some winedom gravitas and is totally frustrated that when one picks up a conventional Alsatian Riesling from many an Alsatian winemaker, it is VERY DIFFICULT to predict beforehand whether it will be "dry" or otherwise (he should know, No?). The exceptions to this rule (Trimback, Kientzler, etc.) simply serve to prove Stevenson's point. If you want another authority's opinion, pick up Fritz Hallgarten's "Wine Scandal"; guaranteed to make your hair stand on end... Or Google: "sugar-da-da-da-da-da-da-oh-honey-honey". I empathize with (some) winegrowers who have to convert less than fully ripe and healthy grapes into a saleable commodity, but my empathy has its limits when some approach the dark side of abusive and potentially scandalous habits. With respect to Why wine? and not other foodstuffs RE; RS, many winiacs consider winemaking tantamount to high art where individuality is esteemed much more so than your run-of-the mill "Good Manufacturing Practice-oriented" examples of consistent manufactured foodstuffs. Incidentally, since you are into Greek creators somewhat, Victor Davis Hanson's "The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization" is a mind-bending landmark written by a Greek scholar and Californian viticulturalist who seems to know what he's talking about. After reading his labor of love, my hat goes off to grapemakers far and wide, modern and ancient !

  6. Jay,

    I might agree with you, IF I agreed that the word "dry" means that the wine is in fact without sugar (or without appreciable sugar).

    As I stated in my blog entry, I believe the word "dry" was originally applied to how the wine makes the palate feel and not how much or how little sugar is in there. In this context, a dry wine can indeed contain sugar in relatively appreciable levels and in fact, still does: think Champagne.

    This is the problem with the search for a label designation. In my view, it's looking at the wrong issue.

    I won't respond to the geeky view of wine as art. I feel you were baiting me on that one ;) You know what I would say to that concept!!!

    I will ask you a question: why do you think winemakers aren't much exercised over the issue of dry vs. sweet?

    I'll look for that "Greek" book. Sounds interesting.

  7. Without appreciable sugar works for me, esp. because wine apparently contains traces of UNfermentable sugars. "Dry" and "organic" share several fallibilities when applied to foods and wine.

    If joe winedrinker knew (or actually cared) what transpires in making many winemaking facilities it would probably induce a temporary state of sobriety. I'm not speaking from personal experience, of course; simply things that I've gleaned from others who have written about it.

    Again, if you haven't read Hallgarten's "Wine Scandal" yet, you'll learn that winemakers and the wine industry in general were very exercised about the chaptalization scandalS plural in numerous European countries several decades ago. An esteemed colleague of Hallgarten even persuaded him not to publish his book, i.e., until the Austrian ethylene glycol scandal (several decades ago also, in the "Rust" region) erupted. Chaptalization is one step removed from dry vs sweet. They don't refer to sugar has granulated sunshine for nuthin :-)

  8. Ah, but isn't Chaptalizing done before fermentation?

    The dry/sweet thing speaks to finished wine.

    Two different discussions: one is about raising the alcohol level when the grape Brix is low; the other is about the sensation on the palate when you drink wine.

    A wine can have been Chaptilized and still wind up with no appreciable sugar in the finished product.

  9. Thomas said: "Two different discussions: one is about raising the alcohol level when the grape Brix is low; the other is about the sensation on the palate when you drink wine."

    Jay's reply: From my perspective the two discussions are inextricably intertwined for the following reason. If the balance of grape acids to endogenous sugars were adequate in the first place (aka ripe grapes) why would a wine maker ever need to add sugar -- aside from creating sparkling wine? To paraphrase an esteemed importer last Xmas: Many German wines actually require that residual sugar (sweetness) -- either endogenous OR added -- in the finished product in order to balance their prominent acidity. The same applies in the Champagne region where, coincidentaly enough, winemakers must likewise transform often unripe grapes into a marketable commodity. Inadequate sunshine and/or overcropping are the culprits. In other words, many winemakers facing harvests of less than optimally ripened grapes add sugar not only to indirectly increase the level alcohol, but ALSO to achieve an adequate balance between sweetness and "sour" organic acids. QED Increasing the volume of wine to sell probably factors into the equation for some as well.

  10. Jay,

    None of this stuff is a hard, fast rule and it's a mistake to make blanket statements about how wines are produced.

    Decisions are made each and every year based on the quality and condition of the crop. Some varieties, Riesling is one of them, reach maturity even when sugars are relatively low.

    Plus, as a winemaker I would never try to add sugar before fermentation to calculate how much sugar I want in the finished wine. That's quite a crap shoot way of doing it. Plus, acidity can be lowered in the winery.

    Lastly, I may be wrong, but in Germany, it used to be that producers need special dispensation to add sugar. They can, however, add back grape juice.

    In Champagne, the method demands sugar additions. But when I refer to the so-called dryness of Champagne, I'm referring to how much sugar is in the finished wine, much of which is added before bottling. In Brut it can be as high as 2% by volume--that's called dry.

  11. One more thing, Jay.

    While I know that we are talking about sugar, etc. I don't see how talking about Chaptalizing and what is done in the winery has anything much to do with the issue of labeling "dry" vs. sweet finished wine.

    My view holds that the nomenclature is not very good in the first place, whether or not a wine is Chaptalized.

    I get the feeling you might think that wineries mislabel their dry wines on purpose. My point is that because of the way the issue is framed, wineries are forced to label their wines in a confusing manner.

    The whole thing can be simplified as soon as people stop worrying about the sugar that may or may not be in the wine, but about: 1. do they like the finished product 2. can they use it the way they choose to use it (with or without food).

    I've met people who liked a wine until they discovered how much sugar was in it--then, they longer liked the wine. That makes no sense to me.

  12. Thomas said: "Plus, acidity can be lowered in the winery."

    Fritz Hallgarten explained in his chapter on "Oenological additives and practices" (Wine Scandal, 1986, p 86): Sometimes it may be necessary to reduce acidity of the juice with potassium or calcium carbonate (chalk) or to increase it by adding tartaric acid."

    Jay notes: Jamie Goode's book about wine attempts to explain the sensation termed "minerality" and quotes several specialists who have suggested (inferred?) that two prime suspects are various sulfur compounds and/or acidity. Now there's a coincidence ! Although it would be a gross oversimplification to assume that natural salts of "inorganic" compounds (where 'organic' typically connotes hydrocarbons) account for every type of minerality sensation, it nevertheless remains striking to me that one means to diminish the sensation of acidity is to convert the so-called free acids into their corresponding salts. Presto ! Instant terroir? Calcite and limestone are primarily magnesium and calcium carbonates, though my recollection isn't perfect.

    Of course, winemakers can reduce aciditites using alternative means, including a cold precipitation of tartaric acid (or its corresponding potassium salt?).

    A preceding chapter in Hallgarten's book is titled "Sugar in wine." Even though this information is 22 years old, a subsection on FRANCE asserts that "in France there is no objection to using beet sugar when permitted to do so and 25,000 TONS [emphasis added] of beet sugar are annually reserved for the wine trade." A earlier subsection on GERMANY notes the following: "In the German vineyards, the most northern in Europe, only one vintage in ten can normally be rated as an excellent vintage. ... Enrichment is the name given to the addition of sugar during fermentation to increase alcohol content. More sugar is added to wine in Germany than in any other country. This has not always been so, however, and the addition of sugar or too much sugar to wine has been the cause of many scandals in the past. ... [skipping the passages about concentrated grape juice/sussreserve] ... The wine trade and its journals engage in endless discussion on this subject. Headlines such as 'No excuse for sugaring' and 'Bitter sweet wine war' are commonplace. That sugar may be added in syrup form, that is dissolved in water, has causd particularly acrimonious discussion because water dilutes the acidity and flavour, not to mention the other 400 constituents, even as trace elements. The practice should have finished years ago, but was extended to 1984 and there is no doubt that it will be extended again to 1990 by the EEC, though it is no longer allowed for all German regions, nor for all grapes. Wines from less favoured regions such as the Ahr, Mittelrhein, Rheingau, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and especially wine from the Riesling grapes (with its high acidity when not fully ripe) may be treated with up to 10% sugar solution. 'German wine is unique amongst all wines!' runs a German advertising slogan. It is indeed unique! German wine is enriched with sugar during fermentation, de-acidified, sweetened with grape juice and then ornamented with a beautiful label on which is printed the longest and most unpronouncable [sic] names of which only 75% need be true and in some cases is totally untrue. This is legalized fraud."

    No doubt, there are many honest winemakers who follow the current laws (whatever they are?) to the letter. My concerns are aimed at those with lesser scruples making 'moon wine'.

  13. Jay,

    No doubt in my mind that fraud exists. In fact, I believe I learned even before I became an adult, that human beings can be quite nasty, if not overly ambitious.

    Incidentally, the French used beet sugar because that is what they grew there--cane sugar did not make it too well in France...

    Calcium carbonate can be used to lower acidity, and aside form its potentially mineral taste, it can cause other problems with wine clarity. pH can be increased (which is what acid reduction also accomplishes)with H2SO2--hydrogen peroxide, but that really is extreme, although it's been done!

    A decision to reduce acidity needs to be carefully made based on the malic/tartaric content. More important, it seems logical that if you need to consistently correct what nature provides, maybe you need to reconsider the grape varieties you grow, or where you grow them.

    Hosing water into wine in California comes with seemingly perfectly fine rationalizations, but the practice makes me quite suspicious about what people will do to get from grapes what nature doesn't regularly provide.

    In any event, I don't understand what the fraud issue has to do with the need for a short cut nomenclature to identify "dry" in finished wine.

    In my opinion, referring to wine as "dry" is a marketing decision that is based on what consumers think they are supposed to like in wine rather than make up their own mind about what they like in wine--including acid, sugar, alcohol, and even that nasty oak dust!