The Cyrano Column: Talking the Talk

January 18, 2024

Did you know that a wine can be both “fruity” and “dry” at the same time? Do you associate “fruitiness” with “sweetness”? Talking about wine freaks out everyone- read on to brush up on your terminology so you feel more comfortable throwing around some basic lingo.

Talking the Talk

Some years back, in my former life as a sommelier, I approached a customer who was looking for wine advice. He did not recognize any of the chardonnay on our list and needed some direction. When I asked what he preferred he stated “a dry chardonnay”.

Now for me, this meant something clean and precise, without a lot of wood and certainly no real sweet flavor.
I brought him Chablis.

He hated it.

“This is fruity”, he said, “I asked for something dry”.

I was a bit confused here and asked him specifically which Chardonnay he generally preferred (something, admittedly, I should have asked at the outset).

“Rombauer or Kendall Jackson”.

Not to cast aspersions on either of these producers but neither, in my book, could be considered dry. Both have a good amount of oak, both skirt the borders of actual sweetness and both are fairly round, bigger styled wines.
I went back and found him a suitable option and all was right with the world.

But I did learn a valuable lesson: the customer’s idea of what is dry (or fruity or sweet for that matter) can be considerably different from mine. And that being said, it is always best to dig a bit deeper and ask more specific questions about preferences before settling on a choice as a substitute to what they usually drink.

This cuts both ways.

Previously I had suggested looking at other options for your usual choices with the same relative weight. Admittedly this puts you in the hands of the wine professional with whom you are dealing and their particular tastes and you never know what you may get. So the best way to avoid this is to be specific. Tell them exactly what you usually like and when speaking in wine terms, be sure to get things straight.

Talking Dry and Drinking Sweet

A friend of mine once told me “Americans like to talk dry, but drink sweet”, and in my experience this was true. They would ask for a dry red wine and end up preferring a big Zinfandel with loads of oak, and high alcohol, the complete opposite of dry to a sommelier.

It seems that in our search for quality wines we have seized upon the term “dry” as connoting a particular level of class and sophistication, and the term “fruity” as being pejorative and reminiscent of cheap, sweet wines.

We never really use them as descriptive terms. We need to sort this out.

Dry White Wine

In the wine world the term dry, when speaking non-technically, is generally regarded to mean wines with little to no overwhelming oak, which are concise and pure and with a good bit of acidity to keep all the flavors focused and together and going in the same direction. This would tend to represent wines on the leaner end of the scale like unoaked chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc but can also describe well made white Burgundy. “Rich” would be a better descriptor if you prefer the bigger styled wines such as big gun California chardonnay.

Fruity White Wine

Yes Virginia, wine is a fruit based product, and should tend to produce a fruity end result. This does not mean sweet but rather refers to fresh fruit being one of the predominant flavors. This is a positive attribute and one that should be embraced sufficing that the acidity in the wine balances out the fruit notes. It is more about the freshness and balance here. A wine can be both dry and fruity at the same time.

Sweet White Wine

Really should only be used to describe dessert wines. Even Rieslings with residual sugar have enough framing acidity to keep them in the fruity section. (Tip: Sweetness is a sensation on your tongue, not something you can smell. If you think a wine is sweet, hold your nose while you drink it. If you can still perceive sweetness while holding your nose- and hence not smelling fruit- then it is in fact sweet.)

Dry Red Wine

The same rule applies here as with white wines with the addition of the tannic structure (that particular drying out on the palate). In red wines this tannic structure is what makes wines seem drier. Again, though, balance is the key here. Too many wines are made with so much tannic structure and too little fruit that there is simply no joy in them. Tannin should not be used as a quality indicator for near term drinking but as a longevity indicator for long term cellaring.

If you like the big, rich styled wines then that is what you need to request.

I had a very good customer who used to love drinking all the big California wines, Caymus, Harlan, Turley and the like. But he felt he needed to take it up a level (financially) and order a 1982 Lafitte Rothschild. I had to talk him out of it. He would have hated it.

Fruity Red Wine

Red fruit character is a great attribute and one that makes wine so enjoyable. This too is about balance. Ripe fruit is fine, as long as it is countervailed by acidity. Most of the lighter bodied red wines have a pronounced fruity character along with good structure that keeps them from seeming sweet. Remember though, we are talking about Red fruit notes, like strawberries and raspberries as opposed to Blue fruit notes such as plums. The former is what you tend to find in wines like Pinot Noir, the latter in wines like Zinfandel or New World Grenache and Syrah.

Sweet Red Wine

Again, just for dessert wines, of which, very few are truly great. Like Bigfoot, often mentioned, rarely sighted.

If you use these very general terms it should help you in securing the type of wine for which you are actually looking. Do not be afraid to ask questions or state preferences but bear in mind, the more particular and set in your ways you are the less chance you have for enjoying a new, illuminating wine experience.

Cyrano has been in the wine business longer than he cares to admit. His hobbies include skeet shooting and poking fun at the “Natural Wine” movement.

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