The terms sweet and dry seem straightforward enough, but in the language of wine they can be dangerously imprecise descriptors.

I spend most of my time helping clientele at Formaggio Kitchen choose wine. That means a lot of time fielding questions and doing my best to describe the wines we sell.

What people most want to know is what they will encounter when they pull the cork on an unfamiliar wine. Each wine here has a little tag on it that I’ve written to try to provide some insight into someone’s future. For some folks this is helpful, but for others seem to want less of a description than a prediction: Here’s what you will experience when you pour this wine. Sometimes I feel like a human fortune cookie.

When either writing or speaking about wine, I do my best to avoid any sort of jargon or insider lingo, but the fact is that some terms are so embedded in our talk about wine that they just can’t be avoided—in part because customers themselves use them all the time. And the one most often used is—can you guess it?—dry, as in “I’d like a dry wine,” or “not too dry, please.” Frequently, “Is this rosé dry?”

You might think that this is a perfectly straightforward question, but dry has become a term of dangerous imprecision. When used in the context of wine, dry has multiple meanings. Let’s sort them out.

A wine with very low levels of unfermented sugar remaining post-fermentation is said to be dry. In this sense, dryness is completely objective because the sugar content is something that can be determined by analysis; there's a number to point to, usually presented as grams of sugar per liter. In German wine law, for example, a wine can call itself dry (“trocken”) if it contains less than 9 grams of unfermented sugar per liter. One might call such a wine officially dry.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that you will perceive it that way. Sweetness is, after all, a taste—one of five (if you count the somewhat controversial umami) our tongues are said to be able to discern. Wines in which we are unable to detect an element of sweetness are also said to be dry, irrespective of their analysis. They make a non-sweet impression. They are perceptually dry.

At this point we’ve left the sphere of objectivity for the realms of subjectivity, since the perception of sweetness is readily influenced by other factors present in wine—notably acidity and temperature.

A third possibility: A note of sweetness can be experienced in wine even when there is very little sugar or no sugar in the wine if it is perceived as being very fruity. Fruity flavors have a way of masquerading as sweetness. I hear this quite a lot when tasting with clientele. “This wine is too sweet for me,” they say, despite the fact that virtually no sugar is present. In this sense, a dry wine is one that’s not fruity.

Are we done, now? If only! Dry pops up in our wine conversations again when we need to describe the drying sensation produced by some kinds of particularly tannic wines. It’s the feeling you get that some mysterious something is Hoovering the saliva out of your mouth. A more proper word to use to describe this sensation is astringency; dryness as vacuum cleaner.

Imagine you’re in a restaurant, in conversation with a sommelier (or in a retail store with a clerk) and you’re eager to make yourself perfectly understood. Using “dry” as a standalone adjective probably won’t cut it. Try expanding it with some qualifying phrases, such as:

  • “I’d like a dry wine, one that’s not sweet.”
  • “I’d like a dry wine, one that’s not fruity.”
  • “I’d like a fruity wine, but not sweet, please.”
  • “I’d like a dry wine, one that not fruity and not sweet.
  • “I’d like a dry wine, but one that’s not astringent.”

Taking this approach may seem like a lot of work, but I can almost guarantee that the person on the other side of the conversation will appreciate the specificity, and you’ll be much more likely to go home with a bottle you love.