Decoding ‘Dry’ in Wines and Spirits

Read Gagan Sharma’s explanation of this term and be prepared to be astonished – and a tad confused!

The Oxford dictionary defines ‘balance’ as ‘a situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions’. Sounds fair, right? If you agree, you’ve got complacent and accept things at their face value. In an honourable, moral, and theoretical world the definition might make sense, but in the world of beverages, it doesn’t even stand a chance. Let me explain.

The primary pursuit of a bartender is to strike a balance between sugar and acids, while respecting the ingredients. In wines, the equilibrium between phenolics and flavours is primary, while showcasing the terroir, varietal flavours and aromas, and the winemaker’s expertise. For a well-aged spirit, it’s the aristocracy of seasoned oak plus the play of time and the maker’s craft that creates the charm. Advertising can create brand value. However, the fate of the drink is decided by individual palates. Even though everyone’s palate is subjective, the liquid must create a common emotion across generations and time, taking into account distinguished palates. While this may sound fair, it raises the question — if all palates are subjective and different, what is absolute balance? What is meant by ‘in the correct proportions’, and who decides? There are a host of questions that need to be answered before we can even begin the argument.

Let’s agree, wherever human senses are involved between the producer and the imbiber, subjectivity will prevail. And even if we agree on these variables and put them in place, we’ll find ourselves wondering whether this pursuit is even worth the chase. No matter how much one tries, perfect balance will still be futile. Therefore, it makes sense to agree that balance isn’t achievable, and that there can only be perceived balance, not an absolute one.

Balance is not only subjective for each palate, it also differs with every drink, and is also described differently. For wine, the basic hierarchy starts with ‘dry’ wines, then off-dry, medium sweet, and sweet. Here, dry indicates the absence of sugar. Simply put, in a dry wine yeast consumes all the sugar, leaving behind nothing but alcohol, acidity, and fruity flavours. However, this too is subjective.

In the still wine universe, dry actually indicates up to 9 grams of sugar per litre, not an absolute absence. This is an allowance to balance the tart, juicy acidity and ensure the flavours shine brightly in the foreground through the balance of chemicals. Think of it like having a sour, super citrus fresh lime soda. If it’s unbearably tart, you’ll balance it out with a dash of sweetness, and it’ll taste pleasant. To elaborate the idea of this balance, in sparkling wines, the term ‘brut’ draws the dryness line at 12 grams of sugar per litre instead of 9 grams. This is owing to the fact that grapes for sparkling wine are harvested a tad earlier than those for still wines, in order to preserve all the crispy, refreshing acidity. And since the acids are higher, the sugars have to be higher to strike an equilibrium. Makes sense, right?

What doesn’t make sense, however, when you consider sparkling wines further and discover the hierarchy of descriptors is Dosage, Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, and Doux. It only makes things complicated.Still wines are dry at 9 grams, the sparkling wine equivalent, ie Brut, is at 12 grams. However, if ‘Dry’ features on a sparkling wine bottle, it’s at up to an astonishing 32 grams of sugar per litre. It’s a sweet wine!! Wasn’t Brut an indication of dryness on these bubblies? Phew!

So, if in the wine world we do not have consensus on the terminology used, how can we expect the consumer to have any clue about what’s going on? As if the nomenclature of wines with tongue-twisting appellations, regions, subregions, crus, vintage charts, ageing, complexity levels and more, wasn’t enough, now even the simplest terminology is not aligned!! This is what confuses consumers and shoos them off for good.

There’s also a difference in undestanding definitions between consumers and the trade. The language that industry professionals speak is of course different from that of the consumers. While ‘dry’ in professional terminology is understood as the absence of sweetness in wines, the consumer thinks of it as the mouth-puckeringg sensation produced by tannins. This one fact creates a serious
knowledge gap, which becomes inevitable.

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For instance, when a guest seeks a wine, especially a red, ‘that’s not too dry’, they are simply asking for a wine low in tannins and/ or alcohol. However, in the sommelier’s world there’s hardly any red wine that has traces of sweetness. There’s no way that the guest would understand the gap between the sommelier’s and their own language. The sommelier and the consumer’s undestanding of wine terminology or language is so different as to be almost incomprehensible. Then, why do we even try!? But wait, there’s more.

Still and sparkling wines aren’t the only ones creating chaos. Aromatic wines join in here. The quintessential Extra Dry and Dry vermouths have their own share of mysteries.

We have all enjoyed Dry Martinis at some time, right? But what if someone was to tell you your Martini wasn’t dry after all? Wouldn’t you feel a tad perplexed? Cheated, maybe? That’s what’s been happening. Extra Dry vermouth contains as much as 30 grams of sugar per litre and Dry vermouths have up to 50 grams of sugar. It’s absolute madness, isn’t it? Basically, dry vermouths are a sugary treat, more a fitting post dinner candied digestif than an aperitif! Who knew?

And it’s not just the vermouths, even gins have a bit of a play to them. The formidable benchmark for global gins is the London Dry Gin template. But what’s dry in a spirit? They aren’t supposed to have sugars in them anyway?

The story goes that after the Belgian war in the 1600s, distillation was banned in the country, and the craft distillers had no choice but to leave with the retreating troops to either the Netherlands or the UK. The aristocracy in London were actively looking for an antidote to malaria and wanted to refine gin as a medicine, and make it a smoother, neater, more posh tipple. Its predecessor, Belgian Jenever, was so rough back then that it needed heaps of sugar to make it palatable. However, through these imports, ginsubsequently became refined enough not to need post-distillation sugars to be added, and hence received the moniker, Londonmade Dry Gin.

The second most important botanical in gin, after juniper berries is, of course, citrus. This not only cuts through the earthy savouriness of juniper, it also lifts the palate with a refreshing sensation. That’s what citrus does, it activates our salivary glands and makes our mouth water, making up for the dehydration caused by alcohol and tannins in the first place.

The most relevant discussion around gins now is the distinction between drinking and sipping. There are gins that need tonics or soda, or need to be mixed into a cocktail to be enjoyed, but there are also gins that can easily be enjoyed on their own. Remember the first time you went to a Bar and asked for a gin, neat? Those days have passed: there’s a new vocabulary in town. Sipping gins offer ample citrus support to whet the palate, rendering it a drink on par with well-aged whiskies, cognacs, rums, and the like. Now if your gins have no sugar, but their acidity alters, wouldn’t
the balance change too? Definitely. And with them the balance of your Martinis, and the play of garnishes as well. The quintessential, apply-to-all lemon slices are passé.

This brings us back to the question, what is balance after all? And this is for, both, the consumer and the professional. Balance in beverages can’t be absolute, only perceived. With every beverage having its own play of elements, it begs for the rewriting of the definition of the word ‘balance’ itself. The vagueness of the definition, ‘different elements are equal or in the correct proportions’ doesn’t help. What is required is understanding the terminology, reliance on one’s palate, one’s experience, growing knowledge+++ with each sip, and looking beyond the label.