Sometimes what you see is not what you get, and that is particularly true of wine labels that have the word "dry" on them.
As an example, take a wine that carries a label that says Dry Chenin Blanc. Unless the wine maker tells you by some statement on the label what the sugar is, you may find out the wine is too sweet. And that will be the case if it contains 1.2% residual sugar or so.
The wine maker isn't trying to fool you by calling the wine "dry." He may merely be using an old argument that says that any wine of about 1% sugar is dry "to most palates." Ah, well, there's the catch.
It is true that a wine of that sugar level will taste dry to people who usually only drink leaded premium soda pop, but to wine lovers, 1.2% residual sugar makes the wine sickly sweet.
All this talk of sweetness in a "dry" wine popped up within the last few months in the wine industry, especially among judges at wine competitions who were concerned about "sweet" Chardonnays winning medals. That led to a column a few weeks ago.
The Sugar Dilemma
Since then, wine makers have said they face a dilemma regarding sugar. One wine maker who makes a Chenin Blanc with .8% residual sugar said he uses the word "dry" on his label to let people who like sweeter wines know that his wine isn't for them.
(Chenin Blanc typically is made with some residual sugar, usually 1.5% to 2%.)
The problem affects other varieties, too, such as Johannisberg Riesling. In 1980, for instance, Chateau St. Jean made a Riesling that had 1.5% residual sugar, but so much acidity and such a low pH that the wine tasted dry.
And yet there are wines with such low acidity and such a high pH that they taste slightly sweet even though there is no residual sugar.
This is one of the reasons the federal agency that controls the labeling of wine, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, has no legal definition for the word "dry" on a wine label: in one case 1.5% residual sugar is dry to the palate, in another case .5% is sweet.
The BATF thus permits wineries to use the word at their discretion. Which could lead to the use of the word on a wine that was very sweet.
Sparkling Wine Labels
At this point, I could make pejorative remarks about the phrase "extra dry" on labels adorning some sparkling wines. The phrase usually refers to a sweeter style of wine, not extra dry at all.
I have long advocated that wine makers tell us what kind of wine they have in the bottle by listing the statistical data on a back or side label. Such a practice would help the informed wine lover, especially with such varieties as Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Mucat--varieties that can be made totally dry, off-dry and very sweet.
Following my column on sweeter Chardonnays, reader Hugo Festner of Van Nuys wrote to make just such a suggestion. His letter said, in part:
"(I) urge wine producers to include information about pH, acidity and especially residual sugar on the label. . . . . Help us (decide if we like a wine) by putting as much truthful information as possible on a label. Reading a label and tasting is the best textbook toward learning about and enjoying wine."
When I suggested this same thing some years ago, I was challenged. One wine maker said, "Wine buyers don't know enough to understand the numbers." I replied that those buyers who do know enough would appreciate assistance. And for those who'd like a quick (albeit very subjective) primer, here is a rough guide to the numbers:
--In general, the higher the acidity in a wine, the lower the pH. Total acidity in wines typically range between .5% (for a very soft, almost flabby wine) to 1% (very crisp, tart, almost acidic wine. In general, the corresponding pH levels of such wines will be about 3.9 for the low-acid wines and 3.1 or even 3.0 for the high-acid wines.
--Wines with .3% to .5% residual sugar: these are dry to most palates, especially if the acidity range is in the .7% to .8% range.
--Wines with .5% and .8% residual sugar and moderate acidity (.65% to .75%): barely off-dry, but they can taste bone dry if the corresponding pH is 3.1, or no greater than 3.25.
--Wines with 1% to 1.5% residual sugar: slightly sweet, especially if the acid and pH are moderate (say .7% and 3.2, respectively). But these wines can taste sweeter if the pH is a higher number and/or the acid is lower. And these wines can taste almost bone dry if, as with the 1980 Chateau St. Jean, the pH is below 3.0 and the acid above 1%.
--Wines with 2.0% to 2.5% residual sugar: usually sweet, but the higher the acidity and lower the pH, the less perceptible will be the sweetness.
And, to throw another factor into the equation, wines with higher alcohols (14% and above) taste slightly sweeter than wines of lower alcohol levels.
The Last Word
Now a final word about residual sugars and label statements:
About a year ago, Hidden Cellars in Mendocino County released a 1985 Johannisberg Riesling at $7. Owner Dennis Patton didn't put the residual sugar on the label, which was unlike him, since Patton usually lists the residual sugar on the label.
The wine was superb and tasted like it had about 2% sugar, maybe less. I wondered not only what the actual residual sugar was, but why Patton left it off the label.
The answers were related. Patton told me the wine had 4.6% residual sugar, total acidity of a very high 1.02% and a low pH of 3.19.
"I left the residual sugar off the label because it tastes a lot less sweet than 4.6%, and if I had put it on the label, people might have thought it was sweet and not bought it," he said.