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Wine chat can be so dry! - when winespeak causes a problem

When trying to find someone a bottle of wine to take away with them, I usually ask what style of wine they prefer. A response I quite often get is “I like dry whites, like Sauvignon Blanc, not sweet ones like Chardonnay”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this response, as it gives me a pretty good idea on what the customer is looking for, though probe a little further, and those commonly used winespeak terms ‘dry’ and ‘sweet’ can cause problems in communication, particularly when it comes to whites.


‘Dry’ literally means no residual sugar. That is to say that all of the sugar in the grape has been converted into alcohol during the fermentation. That isn’t to say that flavours that remind us of sweetness aren’t still there, like ripe fruit, vanilla and caramel from the oak, elderflower perhaps, but there is no actual sugar left in the wine. It can often be hard to separate out a perception of sweetness from actual sweetness, but sugar left in the wine tends to give you a more syrupy texture. If you were to put a late harvest riesling next to a barrel fermented Chardonnay you’d know instantly which was dry. Sometimes, in cooler climates, sugar is even added to the grape must to help with the fermentation, and the result is still dry!


So for clarity in our world of often cloudy wines, I’ve found that words such as crisp, fresh, citrussy are better at conveying what-is-sometimes perceived as dry, whereas rich, creamy, fruity or toasty seem to work well for those other styles of wines and are easier to pin down exactly what you’re looking for. And though your local wine merchant will probably have their own system, building up a good relationship with them will help them help you to find the perfect bottle every time.


For the former, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has a firm foothold as a favourite - your archetypal dry white wine, if you will -  and Clos Henri’s Sauvignon Blanc is a stunning example. Full of mineral complexity, a leaner style than most, but all those trademark grapefruit and grassy flavours you’d expect. Compare it with his Sancerre, 100% Sauvignon from the Loire Valley, sometimes considered Sauvignon’s spiritual home, and see how the same grape can differ produced on opposite sides of the globe, even in the hands of the same producer. Both are made with a laissez-faire, organic ethos.


If you want rich and creamy (but dry), Henri Milan’s La Carree is the most stunning white wine I have tasted to date. Layer upon layer of ripe fruit, creamy texture and provençale herbs woven in. Each mouthful is a gift that keeps on giving. Simply stunning from one of my favourite French producers, who of course works biodynamically.


For a true sweet wine, get a drop of Marsala Dolce from Curatolo down you, a sweet, oxidised, fortified wine that makes as good an aperitif as it does a dessert wine, particularly something like Creme Brulee or Bread and Butter pudding. Also fantastic with cheese. What’s interesting about this as well is the hint of salinity from Marsala’s proximity to the sea which makes it utterly moreish. Think salted caramel!