Berger on wine: What does it mean if a 'dry' wine tastes sweet?

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A German winemaker pulled a label-less wine bottle from a fabric bag, extracted the cork, and asked me to taste it.

This was about 30 years ago. I was one of the few U.S. wine columnists crazy enough to write about dry riesling, and this German winemaker wanted to show me this wine, that was as-yet unbottled.

At the time few German Rieslings here were dry; most were sweet. The wine he poured was young, with a fresh, floral aroma. I sipped. It was very dry, the aftertaste especially so — almost too dry to drink without food.

He asked mischievously, “So how much sugar does this wine have?”

The austerely dry aftertaste left my mouth puckered, but I knew that dry German wines could have 1 percent residual sugar. And that high acid and low pH would combine to make a sugar-free wine taste like licking a lemon.

I suspected a trick was afoot. I guessed it had 2 percent to 3 percent sugar, about 20-30 grams per liter. In most cases such a wine would be slightly sweet.

The winemaker chuckled. “It has 80 grams!” he said. I was stunned. I had never tasted a wine with 8 percent sugar that was so dry. He then went into technical details to explain why this wine tasted so dry.

It had, among other things, high acid and low pH. Both conditions along with other aspects left the wine tart.

I never forgot the lesson. It led to further study of German rieslings, which helps me explain German wines. To more quickly understand this, consumers can taste various wines with riesling-savvy persons — though such people aren’t easy to find.

Asking retail clerks and restaurant personnel usually is no help. I’ve learned that few have any understanding of the word “dry.”

Recently, at a wine-oriented Sebastopol-area café, the waiter was pouring a house white wine. I asked if it was dry. He said yes. Unconvinced, I asked for a sip. The wine was cloyingly clumsy. It may have been dry to him but still lacked the acid it needed to avoid being flabby.

This subject isn’t easy to explain. There are many parameters here, and only those who make a study of the issues can truly understand them and how they connect to wine. The best way to understand this is to taste wine often.

There are two wines on the market today, a well-regarded Napa Valley chardonnay and a popular pinot noir, that most average consumers would say are dry. To my palate, both are sweet. Neither are inexpensive.

The rules about what’s dry and what’s not can be daunting, mainly because many wineries do not want to tell consumers what’s in their wine.

Ask any winemaker or tasting room pourer: “Does your chardonnay have sugar in it?” Many will say “no” so fast you think you’re talking to a politician. Ask the same people if their cabernet has sugar and the answer will probably be the same: “Cabernet with sugar?! No!”

A lot of California wine is too sweet for me. Either they have sugar or acids that are too low and pH levels that are too high — or both.

It’s the dirty little secret that California wineries never want to talk about.

But wines from New York, Michigan and other cooler climates typically have better acidity. Cooler climate wines start out with better acids.

Some of the driest wines you’ll find are European — Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé (Loire Valley sauvignon blancs), Silvaner (a German or Alsace white wine), chablis (a French chardonnay), and German rieslings that say Trocken on the labels.

Many popular pink wines (varietal rosés) have a trace of residual sugar, which appeals to a broad swath of U.S. consumers. But since few such wines actually state that a rosé is dry, many consumers are left without a clue.

As a rule, rosé wines from the south of France are made with just faint traces of residual sugar, perhaps 5 grams (a half percent), but usually they have sufficient acid and a low pH to make them dry on the tongue. There are many to choose from, almost all under $20 a bottle.

Wine of the Week: 2017 Tres Chic Rosé, Sud de France ($17). The use of 70 percent grenache in this delightful dry rosé gives the aroma the berrylike fruit that makes for a fresh floral, and spicy wine. The 30 percent cinsault adds body so some of its succulence comes from slightly higher alcohol (13 percent). Versatile so it works with almost any food.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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