How Dry You Are

Party your way to an unshakable understanding of what "dry" wine really is

Well, I'm back at it again. Trying to refine my "Wine Club" concept, the one whereby you can start at zero, and rapidly come to understand, through partying with your friends, the complexities and joys of the wine world.

This week I'm going to take my sledgehammer and try to whack the concept of dry into a useful shape.

Why dry? Because dry is one of the most important concepts in Wine World, and one of the most abused by blowhards and ignoramuses.

Jane Sherman

Let me introduce a character I'll call Clyde the Drip. Now Clyde the Drip hasn't got the foggiest idea what "dry" means. Yet he's heard very cool Secret Service types in movies demand martinis so dry you just pass the vermouth bottle over the glass; he's heard glamour-blondes from the silver screen request the driest Champagne, he's noticed that "dry," when it comes to humor, means something British and sophisticated, and that it is the opposite of the sort of humor involving a football and a man's crotch. So Clyde has used his deductive logic to conclude that dry means good, and also classy, superior, and important. This misconception, however, is not what makes Clyde a drip.

What makes Clyde the Drip is this: One day, he sits down in a fancy restaurant with a table full of clients. The sommelier approaches. Clyde notices that everyone is probably going to have seafood for the first course, and so a white is in order. Clyde asks, "What is your driest white?" "We have a lovely Premier Cru Chablis..." begins the sommelier, at which point Clyde barks, "No, you idiot, I said something dry, what's wrong with you people?" Whereupon the sommelier spends the rest of the evening unloading the worst stinkers on his list on the unsuspecting table in a small but useful act of revenge.

What was Clyde the Drip's mistake? Not knowing that Chablis is one of the driest wines there is, yes, certainly that. More importantly though, Clyde is making one of the most aggravating mistakes in all the world of wine: He thinks that "dry" means "good." Dry doesn't mean good, dry means dry. Eh, you say, What? Huh? What I mean when I say "dry means dry" is what we're going to figure out right now.

(Okay, okay, I know you probably also thought that Chablis was sweet wine in a jug. This had something to do with the 1970s, when Nixon was in the White House, mood rings were on the American mind, and brand management was in its infancy. I don't have time to get into all the details, but suffice it to say that Chablis was once the Cadillac of wines, so some enterprising mass marketers grabbed the name and used it for a while.... Eventually Chablis got its name back, but the damage was already done.)

Think of it like this: Do gentlemen prefer blondes? Or, conversely, do you know any blonde jokes? Or does "blond" just refer to hair that's more on the yellow-white side of the spectrum, but then a couple of people got a couple of ideas in their heads, and we were off and galloping? Of course, once a gentleman knows what dry is, he is certainly free to prefer dry, but only if he actually does prefer it, and not because Hugh Hefner does.

So, we are going to learn what dry is, for real, in the only way that matters: with our mouths.




1. Blanc de Blancs French Champagne. I picked the Blanc de Blancs made by Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, a Premier Cru Champagne house.

2. Unoaked French Chablis. I like Verget's "Terroirs de Poinchy" Chablis, though there are other Verget Chablis around that are excellent, too. You want a basic, affordable, under-$25 bottle--the more expensive and prestigious the bottle, the more likely it is to be oaked.

3. An unoaked California or Australian Blanc de Blancs sparkler. I used "Sofia," the Francis Coppola California Blanc de Blancs.

4. An unoaked, un-maloed American or Australian Chardonnay. (Huh? Okay, this is going to be hard on you. What you're looking for is Chardonnay that hasn't been aged in oak or wood--this is what "unoaked" or "unwooded" means on a wine label--and also hasn't been subjected to the winemaking technique known as a secondary malolactic fermentation, which is done to create a heavy and creamy mouth-feel. Wine jargon for malolactic fermentation is maloed, unmaloed, etc.) My top pick is Hendry Ranch Napa Valley Chardonnay, though the Australian Gnangara Unwooded Chardonnay has a vastly larger production, and should be a lot easier to find.

(If you can't find either the Hendry or Gnangara, you're just going to have to pull all the Chardonnays you see off the shelf and read the labels. Being unwooded and un-malo'd is so rare for Chardonnay that it will usually say so right on the bottle. The Hendry, for example, has a back label that first describes the grapes, and adds, "It is tank fermented, and did not undergo malolactic fermentation." If they specify "tank fermented" what they're saying is: no wood. The Gnangara says "unwooded" right on the front label; there's also an unwooded Yalumba, which isn't any good, and an unoaked Kim Crawford from New Zealand, which I haven't tried but imagine would be swell.)

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