In asking someone to help you pick a bottle of wine, it’s helpful to have some solid knowledge of tasting terms- especially when it comes to flavors and mouthfeels. For instance, I meet a lot of people who tell me they like a “dry wine,” yet, in discussing a little more what it is they’re looking for, I figure out what they really want is a wine that makes their mouth FEEL dry- in other words, a wine with a lot of tannins. Were I to point them in the direction of a light Zweigelt (a fresh, light, tart red,) they might not actually like it- it’s too light, acidic, and low in bitter tannins-yet technically, it is VERY dry and exactly what they asked for. So what do they want, and what does it mean when a wine is dry, tannic, off-dry, fruity, jammy, ect?
Dryness is essentially a lack of sugar. It means the wine was allowed to ferment until the yeast had used up all the sugars from the grapes. White wines can be dry, as can roses and reds. Seldom will you find a red wine that ISN’T dry (and if it isn’t, it’ll usually explicitly say “sweet red” or “off dry” on the bottle.) Usually wines (reds in particular) are fermented until there is virtually no residual sugar left. This is not only for taste and style, but also for stability in the bottle. (As a winemaker, if you plan to leave any sugar behind, you better filter the hell out of that wine- one little microbe can go to TOWN on all that leftover sugar and you’ll wind up with something funky in the bottle- or worse, cases of exploding wine bottles.) Whites and roses are more likely to have residual sugar, as in moscato, and some rieslings or gewurztraminers. If you don’t like crisp acidity in your white wines and prefer something with a touch of sweetness, it’s important to emphasize that you don’t want something too dry.
On the other hand, you may really like a crisp, acidic white, but prefer something with more fruit. Although you may not like actual sugar sweetness in a white wine you still may want something with more fruity or floral flavors. This is good to explain to whoever is helping you. Or, if you don’t like fruitier or floral aromas and flavors, that’s good to be able to distinguish as well. I have had people taste a wine and say “no, I don’t like that, it is too sweet,” when in reality, there is no residual sugar left. It is completely dry and very non-sugar sweet. But sometimes those floral aromas will trick your brain into thinking it tastes “sweet.” Try to identify these distinctions because it will make it easier to explain what you do and don’t like in wines- especially whites and roses.
Similarly when tasting reds, try to differentiate between “fruitiness” and “sweetness.” A red can be totally dry, but still have a fruity, jammy berry flavor. You may like this or not like it. But if you walk into a wine store saying you want a sweeter red, when what you really want is a fruitier dry red, you’ll probably walk out with something sugar-laden that you don’t love.
Similarly, if you don’t love the parched flavor you get in your mouth from tannins, don’t walk into a wine store and say “I want a red, but nothing too dry.” Someone will hand you something sweet and you’ll quite possibly be unhappy. You can say “I want something not too tannic, or something not too astringent. Something smoother with less spice.” And you’ll be likelier to get something closer to what you had in mind.
You definitely don’t have to be a snob about your verbage where wine is concerned. No airs necessary, just know how to ask for what you want. It’ll be easier to find all the tasty gems your local wine store has to offer!
Feel free to ask any questions in the comments.
Go forth! Shop, taste, enjoy!
Did you know?
Tannins make your mouth feel parched because they actually bind to your saliva proteins. So they are drying! Oof! Or should I say “smack, smack, smack?”