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.

 

TO LEARN WHAT DRY IS, YOU'LL NEED:

FOUR BOTTLES OF WINE:

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.)

 

TWO SORTS OF BEER:

1. Guinness, in the pub-can;

2. Another really dry beer, like Japanese Asahi Dry or Sapporo, an extra-dry Pilsner like Pilsner Urquell or Staropramen, or a dry Abbey beer, like Chimay "Cinq Cents" (the white cap).

 

TWO TYPES OF CRACKERS:

1. A dry cracker, like Carr's plain old water crackers, or plain matzoh, or some other cracker on those dry lines;

2. A buttery cracker, like Carr's croissant crackers, or Club crackers, or what have you.

 

AT LEAST TWO CHEESES:

1. A dry cheese, such as pecorino Romano, the aged sheep's-milk cheese, or any of the dry Sicilian, Sardinian, or southern Italian hard sheep's-milk cheeses;

2. Mascarpone, that lightest, sweetest, most barely-a-cheese veil of sweet cream.

 

AT LEAST FOUR FRUITS:

1. Grapes, both green table grapes and the sweetest red or black ones you can find;

2. A green Granny Smith apple;

3. Some ripe something or other, like cantaloupe, mango, or strawberry.

 

You'll also need at least two wine glasses per taster, and two juice glasses or shot glasses for the beer. Got 'em? Now we are off and running.

Sit on down. Pour everyone two little tastes of beer. The Guinness, the other. Try them. What do you notice about the different smells of the two things? What about the finish, the sensations you have in your mouth, palate, and head after you swallowed the stuff? Isn't it funny that we're thinking about a quality of "dry" as regards to things that are, quite literally, wet? Discuss.

Everyone should now eat a dry cracker, and then a buttery one. Have some dry cheese; notice the parch and tang it creates? Now, have some mascarpone. Isn't mascarpone grand?

Oops, I now realize that we forgot to gather one thing. You'll also need a number of thoughts about bananas.

Are you thinking about bananas? Really thinking about them?

First, get out your thoughts about green, underripe bananas. They're hard, they taste kind of chalky, what else? Okay, now, get out your thoughts about a big, ripe, yellow banana. It's ripe, it smells fruity, it's sweet and just totally ultra-banana, right? Okay. Now, conjure from your internal mists the thought of an overripe banana covered with brown spots. Maybe your mom is trying to convince you it's perfectly fine and you should take it in your lunchbox. I don't know. In any event, that banana is overripe. Now we have grappled with the three ages of fruit: not fully ripe, ripe, and overripe. Ripe, full, sweet, plush, and fruity are the opposite of dry.

Some of the driest wines in the world are made with just those green bananas. Well, of course they're not, but I wanted to get your attention. Now that I've got it, picture yourself as a Chardonnay grape. You're a fruit; you like the sun. Except, cruel fate has seen fit to plant you in the dark, gray, cold world of the Champagne area of France. (Champagne is the Seattle of France, except with a little less rain and a lot fewer kayaking shoes worn to black-tie events.) You sit there, in the cold Seattle of France, with the chill winds of the Atlantic constantly driving black clouds above your head, and you think of dying. Then you think you won't. You think you might just order in some Thai and warm up. Then you remember you're a grapevine, and you think about dying some more. At the end of the growing season all you have been able to produce is a few smallish, none-too-ripe grape clusters. A Frenchman twirling his moustache harvests your grape clusters, takes them to his chateau, and turns them into one of the driest wines there is: Blanc de Blancs Champagne.

So, it's time to pop the cork on your real French Champagne and pour everyone a glass. See how dry it is? Like the dry beer and the dry cheese, it makes your mouth feel parched and zingy. Blanc de Blancs means sparkling wine made solely with the white grape varietal Chardonnay. (Every wine we will be tasting tonight is made only with the Chardonnay grape, because I wanted you all to be able to compare apples to apples.)

Okay, while you were tasting the Champagne, did you forget you're a Chardonnay grape? Well, it's time to go back to being a grape, and remember your dear, dear grape sister, from whom you were cruelly torn at birth.

She grew up in a happy, sunny field in happy, sunny Australia--or possibly happy, sunny California, she can't actually tell, because she's a grape. Anyhoo, every day the sun shines and warm breezes soothe her happy vines. She grows. She thrives. She is so happy and growing so fast that she toys with the idea of growing all the way to the sun. Her main problem is that every time she tries to do this, some Australian or Californian dude whistling either "Waltzing Matilda" or "Good Vibrations" comes by and trims off her far vines, to force her to focus her energy into her grape clusters. (This is the grape-growing equivalent of turning off the television to force your sixth-grader to do her homework.) The sun shines, the warm winds waft. At the end of the year, she presents a number of grape clusters that are so colorful, so bright, so fruity and wonderful that they smell like a million bucks run through a rainbow. They are robust. So, the Australian or Californian throws them into his rucksack or Jeep and turns them into something fruity, ripe, and robust.

It is now time to pop the cork on your California Blanc de Blancs. If you ended up with the Sofia, you'll notice that the stuff is direly sweeter than the French Champagne, and that every aspect of the wine is bigger, bolder, fruitier, and more robust. It's like the difference between a drawing done in pencil, and another done in colorful pastels. Right? Now would be a good time to try your green apple and your other ripe fruit. Go back and forth between your Champagne and your other bubbly. Can you tell which one is the dry one? Close your eyes and have your friends switch your glasses around on you. Can you tell which one is the dry one now? What about now? Don't move on from this step until you feel like you have a sense of which wine is the dry one.

Once you feel like you have it nailed, go back to being a grape. Consider how your other sister (oh, the humanity!) ended up in a field of nothing but white limestone rocks in Chablis, France. Seriously. She is not planted in regular dirt; she is planted in dirt that is mostly rocks. Because of this, she finds that she has a unique problem: Every single time it rains, the water just slides through the rocks, never allowing her to get a good drink. No matter how she sucks and sucks at those rocks, she never gets enough water. She gets some good sunlight, sure, but grapes do not live by sunlight alone! At the end of the year, her grape clusters are undersized, because she never got enough water to really go for it. Her grapes are made into another phenomenally dry wine: real Chablis.

So, everyone, drain your Champagne, so we can move on to the Chablis. Pour everyone a glass of Chablis. Taste it. You see how it has a full sort of flavor that seems to vanish into a steely, flinty kind of nothingness? Does your mouth feel physically dry? Do you notice how kind of sleek this wine is, that no single element stands out particularly, and it just kind of wraps itself up in itself and dives in after itself? That's called elegance. Or, it's called the kind of thing you think on your third glass of wine. You decide.

Now, again, you are a grape. Your third, and, for tonight, final sister ended up in, again, that sunshiny pleasure dome known as either California or Australia. It's awesome there. Totally, totally awesome. Her grape clusters are beautiful; they could go on a magazine cover. If they do, she wants to be attached to the screenplay. From these gorgeous grapes comes a gorgeous wine: un-oaked, un-maloed Chardonnay. If you can find the Hendry Napa Valley Chardonnay, you are really in luck. It has a fragrance like kiwis, red apples, and plummy shrub roses. It feels like a bouquet of summer flowers in the mouth; it tastes like coming over a green, green hill and finding a dozen hot-air balloons on the rise. If you've got the Gnangara unwooded Chardonnay, you'll notice it's sharp and clean, with a sort of lime-kiwi-pineapple-grapefruit perfume.

In either case, you should be tasting what a Chardonnay grape tastes like when it is fully ripe and happy: the ultimate yellow banana. Try the Chablis. It's the green banana. Go back and forth between your unwooded Chablis and your unwooded Chardonnay, both made of the same Chardonnay grape, just raised in different environments. Which one is dry? Which one is dry? Which one is dry? Keep swapping them around until you feel like you have a lock on it.

And that's it! You should, by the time this tasting is done, have a deep understanding of what dry is. You'll be ready if you're called upon to break up a hostage situation in which a masked man with a tray of white wines is shouting, "Tell me which one is dry, or the kid gets it!" You should have some sense of whether you enjoy the sensation of dry, or whether you don't. You should have a sense that dry is just one aspect of a complex object: There is the stereotype of blondes, and then there is the reality of a blond wood Danish Modern dining table, expandable to seat eight. And forevermore, if you're the client at the table when Clyde the Drip makes a fool of himself, you'll have insights into his character and your future negotiating strategies previously available only to sommeliers.

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