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"Dry" & "Sweet": How We Ought Not Describe Wine

"Dry" & "Sweet": How We Ought Not Describe Wine

Aaron Ayscough | Chef's Blade

In the interest of clearer communication about wine, I’d like to propose the general retirement of the word “dry.”

It will be hard to let go. For much of the wine-drinking public, it is a gem of a word – a real cubic zirconia. I would attribute its popularity to the fact that simply using the term demonstrates a brief acknowledgement, on the part of the drinker, of the metaphorical nature of wine description. “How can a liquid be dry?” is a question most sommeliers have fielded at one time or another.

Problems arise when drinkers, having hurdled this doorstep of understanding, confuse it for some kind of high jump. They cling to their achievement, this word “dry,” and it becomes a basis for prejudice and malformed opinions about wine. For some it appears to become synonymous with “tasty,” or “pleasant,” as in: “I’ll take a glass of your driest wine.”

I try to respond honestly to this question. As an informed wine buyer, however, you feel something like the scholar who has just been asked which work of Russian literature he feels to be the longest. It is just the style, you or he might say. They’re all rather long, they’re all rather dry – but there is an awful lot more to the subject. Wine appreciation is a varied field that encompasses significantly more than ranking beverages on a dry-to-sweet scale.

But there I go; I’ve used another word that ought to be banned. The “S” word – pure horror to guests. It’s the reason most Americans are deathly afraid of aperitifs or dessert wines. First blame Prohibition, when our forefathers resorted to cheap unprofessional basement wine, much of which probably suffered from stuck fermentation. Next, for fear of sweetness, blame mass-market capitalism, the global economy, and the general trend of genuine products being diluted and sweetened to appeal to whoever presents the largest buying audience. Cheap, sweet Champagne, for instance, was an innovation originally targeted at a 19th century Russian audience. There’s no sense in denying winemakers any responsibility to mass tastes, but it could be argued that sweetening Champagne is a little like abridging Tolstoy.